Tom Thibodeau returned to Minnesota Wednesday for the first time since he was dismissed as coach and team president, bringing with him the sort of I-told-you-so success in New York that made the argument that he was wrongly dismissed. That the Timberwolves have also been the worst team in the NBA this season did little to dissuade that argument
But for a night, Thibodeau might have felt like he was the one guiding the cellar-dwelling team. In need of a win after a dismal performance Monday, the Knicks went into the Target Center and blew leads of as many as 17 points and fell, 102-101, to the Timberwolves.
Thibodeau’s revenge has come in the form of finding himself as a leading candidate for NBA Coach of the Year with the Knicks shedding much of their dysfunctional past and finding themselves in the mix for a top-four seeding in the Eastern Conference.
And the Timberwolves? After Thibodeau brought them to the postseason for the first time in 14 years in his second season, he was pushed out midway through the next season with some grumbling about his hard-driving style. In his wake Minnesota entered Wednesday’s game with an NBA-worst 11-36 record, and coincidentally, his first meeting with his former team at Madison Square Garden earlier this season turned out to be the last game for his replacement on the bench, Ryan Saunders, who was fired after the game ended.
But the Knicks nearly blew that game in the Garden and this time did actually spoil Thibodeau’s night. This night it was Thibodeau who was not fired, but still left frustrated afterward.
"We did good things to build those leads and we didn’t play tough enough with the lead," Thibodeau said. "In this league, every team has great players. You can’t be here without being a great player. You let your guard down just a little bit you’re going to be in trouble. There’s 30 teams, 29 capable of beating you if you don’t come with that edge, with the mentality to play 48 minutes. If you get loose, you’re going to get knocked down."
"Yeah, the message was clear," Julius Randle said. "We’ve got to take care of business."
The Knicks were not playing well, but in comparison to the Timberwolves still seemed bound for an easy win early. Up 28-21 they ran off 10 straight points for a 17-point lead early in the second quarter. But before halftime the lead was almost completely wiped out as the Timberwolves not only closed to within 51-50, but could have gone into the locker room with the lead if Ricky Rubio converted a wide-open three at the buzzer.
The Knicks looked like they were going to blow it open again in the fourth quarter, up 13 with 8:50 remaining. But a 7-0 Timberwolves run cut the deficit to just two. Minnesota had a chance to tie, but Jaylen Nowell missed on a floater in the lane and then after a timeout, rookie Anthony Edwards air-balled a jumper. Julius Randle connected in the lane and when the lead shrunk to two again, he dropped in a baseline jumper.
But with just over a minute left Edwards hit a reverse layup to tie the score. Elfrid Payton misfired in close, but Taj Gibson, who was with Thibodeau in every stop, converted on the follow. But again, the defense buckled and Malik Beasley hit an open three-pointer to give the Timberwolves their first lead since the opening minutes, taking a 102-101 lead with 37 seconds remaining.
RJ Barrett then lost the ball out of bounds with 25.6 seconds left. But Reggie Bullock poked the ball free, giving the Knicks another chance. Randle missed in the lane and Karl-Anthony Towns pulled down the rebound. But he lost the ball and the Knicks had the ball with 5.1 seconds left. Barrett missed badly as he forced up a jumper over Towns as time expired.
In New York, where the team had put together a 24-23 record entering the game, there has been no visible pushback from players. Maybe some of that is that Thibodeau has toned down his style, but also there is little argument that he has not only turned around the team but also raised the level of the players in place.
But perhaps the key to all of this is the time that Thibodeau had away from the bench, visiting with other coaches and teams, watching practices and seeing how others were handling the rigors of the season. In New York Barrett and Randle have consistently been among the NBA’s leaders in minutes played, but practices have become often film sessions and individual workouts rather than the sort of marathon workouts he was once renowned for holding. Orlando coach Steve Clifford told a story earlier this season about Thibodeau holding four and five-hour workouts in preparation for Summer League.
"For me, I loved having the opportunity to step away," Thibodeau said in his introductory news conference in New York. "You never want to stay the same. Part of it was just to recharge and get away and relax, and the other part was to learn. Whatever your circumstances are at that particular time, you try to make of those."