The 3-1 preseason record and the play of the Knicks’ young core raised some hopes that the rebuilding process at Madison Square Garden can move slightly quicker than expected. At least it raised them until Tom Thibodeau was asked about it.
"Well, you’re 0-0 now," he said in a Zoom call Sunday after the team got back to practice.
That may sum up as well as anything what Thibodeau expects from his team. It was no different from what occurred Friday, when a defensive lapse or a poorly executed offensive scheme prompted him to call timeout . . . with a lead of more than 40 points. That night he insisted that he is never satisfied.
And maybe that’s the lesson that his young team needs. With one of the youngest rosters in the NBA, the Knicks have neither star power nor experience. But they have taken some of Thibodeau’s lessons to heart as they prepare for Wednesday’s season opener in Indiana.
Asked what identity the team hopes to have, RJ Barrett sounded very much like his coach. "Going to continue to say it, just a hard-working group, a group that goes out there and brings the defensive intensity, tries to outwork our opponent every night," he said. "I feel like if you bring the energy and you play harder than the other team, you put yourself in a position to win every game. I think that’s what we’ve got to hang our hat on."
The Knicks saw improved play in the preseason from Barrett and Kevin Knox, their last two lottery picks before the 2020 NBA Draft. Rookie guard Immanuel Quickley opened eyes, possibly putting himself in position for a starting job. This year’s lottery pick, Obi Toppin, showed hints of his potential — and how much work he has to do to reach it.
Some of the Knicks’ best performances in the preseason came with Quickley at the point and surrounded by four of the youngest players on the roster — Toppin, Barrett, Knox and Mitchell Robinson.
Thibodeau has coached playoff teams almost every season of his career, but his task here is to prepare those young players to compete with more experienced opponents.
"That’s the challenge for every team," he said. "How quickly can you adapt to everything? The first challenge was getting everyone up to the same page in training camp and then preseason games, shortened to just four games. That’s exactly what it is — preseason. Teams are experimenting with a lot of different things and not playing their whole roster like a regular-season game. So it’s a whole different level you have to go to in the regular season. We have to understand that. What we’re locked into is our daily improvement and be ready for Indiana when it opens up.
" . . . It’s really, what you’re using those games for, they’re preseason games. So usually there’s a progression to the season. You start with summer league, fall practices, then preseason games and then the regular-season games. At each level, the intensity rises and the challenge becomes greater. Of course, later in the season, if you’re fortunate enough to get to the playoffs, that’s another level as well, so I think you prepare for everything.
"You never want to look too far ahead. You’re just concentrating on what we have to get done the next day in practice and who are we preparing to play. Then understanding what goes into winning. Then each game tells you exactly where you are and what you have to work on."