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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Tom Thibodeau has Knicks pointed in right direction

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau yells to an

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau yells to an official during action against the Toronto Raptors at Madison Square Garden on April 11, 2021. Credit: TNS/Rich Schultz

It’s over. The Knicks couldn’t do it. They couldn’t make a valiant last stand against the Atlanta Hawks and squeeze out a win in front of their home crowd at Madison Square Garden. They couldn’t force a Game 6.

The Knicks' season ended Wednesday night with Trae Young bowing at halfcourt after hitting a late three and Clint Capela smiling smugly as his prediction about sending the Knicks on vacation came true with the Hawks' 103-89 victory.

As disappointed as Knicks fans had to be, the truth is they have many reasons to celebrate. This year has been a massive success and the single biggest reason why is Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau.

Thibodeau took a 21-win team with a roster no one wanted to the playoffs. Not only did he give Knicks fans something to cheer about as they dealt with the isolation of life during COVID, but he set a solid foundation for the future success of the team.

The Knicks are no longer the laughingstock of the league. Rather, they are a franchise that star players might consider a destination, something which bodes very well for the future of this team. Because to get to the next level they are going to have to find a true superstar to play alongside Julius Randle.

There is every reason to believe that the Knicks might be able to lure a quality player. Thibodeau has made Madison Square Garden a place to be again, a place where tickets go for $1,000-plus and celebrities are begging for courtside seats instead of the Knicks begging them to sit there.

As hard as the loss was, Thibodeau relatively upbeat in his postgame news conference.

"I told our group that I’m proud of what our team accomplished this year," Thibodeau said. "I’m disappointed with the result tonight. Hopefully, we can learn and get better. But I thought our guys gave us everything they had all year long. I’m very proud of them. Hopefully we can take this and use it as motivation for everything we have to get done this summer in preparation for next year."

On so many levels, Thibodeau is the most unlikely of candidates to restore the Garden’s glamour. The last coach to do something like this for the Knicks wore Armani suits, sported a perpetual suntan and had a movie star-like presence. As far as appearance goes, Thibodeau is the antithesis of Pat Riley. He is most comfortable in sweats, has the complexion of a mortician or someone who rarely sees the sun and has the underwhelming presence of a team statistician.

Yet, Riley and Thibodeau have much in common on the basketball court. Both believed that the way to win in New York is to play hard-nosed defense. And both have inspired incredible loyalty from their players.

"He’s an old-school coach and our young guys love it," said Taj Gibson, who played for Thibodeau in Chicago and Minnesota. "It’s a great atmosphere."

The atmosphere around the Knicks says something good is happening here. For the past 20 years, coach after coach has come into Madison Square Garden talking about changing the culture. Thibodeau did that in one season.

Thibodeau returned the Knicks to their defensive basketball roots. In a basketball era where offense rules, he has won with a team built on defense. He has made the Knicks into the gritty sort of team that reflects this city and all it has gone through over the years.

The one thing that Thibodeau did that hurt him was raise public expectations for this team. The Knicks played so well and were so exciting in the regular season and in the first two games of this series, that people began wanting more and more. The somehow expected a team that Vegas sports books predicted would win 21.5 games this year to win a first-round series.

"What people shouldn’t do is get too greedy," said former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy before the start of the series. "Wherever they end up, to me they were a heavy underdog. It’s been an amazing season."

It really has.

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