New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau gesture in the...

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau gesture in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Knicks didn’t know where they were going to play. They didn’t know whom they were going to play. And they didn’t know what they were going to be playing for.

These unknowns had to be killing Tom Thibodeau, NBA’s current king of preparation, as his Knicks headed into Tuesday night’s game against the Charlotte Hornets, which was the final night of group play in the NBA In-Season Tournament.

The Knicks, like every other team in the NBA, had no idea early Tuesday what their next week would entail. Depending on the results of Tuesday night’s play, they could either advance to the knockout rounds that are scheduled for next Monday or Tuesday or be assigned games against other non-qualifying teams.

This means the Knicks, who had a 2-1 record entering their final group-play game Tuesday, could be playing any one of a dozen or so teams in their first game next week depending on how it all shook out later that night.

For a guy like Thibodeau, who was famous early in his career for pulling all-nighters in the film room, having a staff break down so many possible opponents posed a new kind of challenge. In fact, Thibodeau said that it’s even more unpredictable than what basketball staffs with a playoff-bound team go through at the end of a season when they aren’t quite sure whom they will meet in the playoffs.

“When the regular season came, you have a pretty good idea that it’s going to be one of two or three teams,” he said. “Now, there’s a lot more to it. There’s so many possibilities and you have to prepare for all of them. Your advance people, they’re busy. Your video people are busy. This is what the tournament has done.

“But I think the play-in has been a huge success and I think this will be too.”

Although the tournament’s success remains to be seen — it’s hard to imagine any team getting too pumped up to hang an In-Season Tournament championship banner from its rafters — there have been some interesting moments in the group-play stage, much more interesting than we could have expected to see in a regular mid-November game.

Leading the list for the Knicks was their come-from-behind 100-98 win over Miami in Friday’s group-play game. Jalen Brunson, who scored eight points in the final three minutes, likened the atmosphere at Madison Square Garden that night to a playoff game. The game might have had some of that atmosphere anyway, given that Miami eliminated the Knicks from the playoffs last year. Yet, having something additional to play for elevated the stakes somewhat.

The biggest unexpected bonus of the group-play stage of the tournament, however, seems to be the general state of confusion it has caused as fans tried to figure out just what had to happen Tuesday for their team to advance. This alone kept fans talking. It also turned Tuesday night’s Knicks game against a bad Charlotte team that was missing LaMelo Ball, its top scorer, into something verging on must-see TV for Knicks fans.

Make no mistake, there’s nothing the NBA would like more than to see the Knicks advance in the tournament. Heading into Tuesday night’s play, the Lakers and Pacers had already clinched. Adding another big-market team like the Knicks to the knockout round will certainly help viewership. And, make no mistake, that’s what this whole tournament is about.

The NBA’s current media deal ends at the close of the 2024-25 season, which means they can start negotiating with their current broadcasting partner in March and other interested parties, including Amazon, a month later. You can bet Adam Silver will be thrilled to show them that, yes, fans do care about the NBA before Christmas.

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months