When Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau called timeout just over a minute into the second quarter Wednesday night, RJ Barrett didn’t have to see the frustration bubbling over behind his mask to know what was coming.
Almost as soon as Lauri Markannen cut backdoor behind Barrett, Thibodeau’s arms were waving, his mask was dropping and he was calling timeout. And when Barrett took a seat on the bench Thibodeau directed his ire at him clearly. But by the time the huddle was broken up and the Knicks took the floor, Thibodeau had called a play for Barrett to get a shot and the hard feelings were eased. The Knicks would respond for a much-needed win over the Chicago Bulls.
"I see my job as to tell them the truth as I see it," Thibodeau explained after the game. "You can get beat — the players in this league are great — they can beat you on a great play. But it shouldn’t happen over and over again. I know when we’re at our best that doesn’t happen. It wasn’t only the player who got beat on the back door. I always say that our ball pressure and our weak-side awareness should cover up for any mistakes that we make. So it was a compilation of errors, and to win in this league that can’t happen."
Telling the truth is not a new strategy for Thibodeau. He has long been seen as a hard-driving, win-at-all-costs coach. But the important thing for the Knicks coming out of this latest blow-up — he was smiling openly by the end of the 113-94 victory — was that the Knicks listened, absorbed the lessons and were in agreement with the anger and just as angry themselves.
The results have shown as the Knicks improved to 35-28, holding fourth place alone right now in the Eastern Conference, a lofty position few outside of the locker room would have expected.
Thibodeau’s style has sometimes clashed with front-office members of the teams he has coached, and sometimes players have resisted the demanding style. But in New York Thibodeau has the support of a front office that enjoyed a long relationship with him before hiring him last summer. And the players — many who played for John Calipari in college, or in Barrett’s case, under Mike Krzyzewski — have embraced the lessons even if they sometimes come wrapped in a tough-love form.
"Absolutely. That's what we need," Julius Randle said. "We need to be coached. We need to be held accountable. So if we're not doing our job he's gonna tell us about it. And that's how it should be. We should hold each other accountable as well. We have a standard that we set every day, and we have to live up to that. We have to do the right things every day, so we can handle it. We’re not a fragile group. We’ve been doing that all year."
"One, that’s really his job to hold us accountable," Barrett said. "We don’t really take it personally. I was mad at myself, too. I knew before he said anything. It was funny. I think I got back-doored, he called timeout and he actually ran a play for me coming out of the timeout. It’s not personal. We’re trying to win the game.
"Thibs is Thibs. He’s his own person. He’s his own man. Whatever he does, whatever he’s been doing, it’s been working, it’s been working his whole career. So we’re really lucky to have a guy like that on the sideline."