Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau yells form the sideline during...

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau yells form the sideline during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls, Sunday, April 14, 2024. Credit: AP/John Munson

You have to work hard and get used to the yelling.

That, in essence, is the scouting report on playing for Tom Thibodeau. The Knicks coach’s sideline demeanor is legendary. He screams, he swears, he throws up his hands in exasperation. In this touchy-feely Ted Lasso era, he is the ultimate throwback, the sort of coach New York hasn’t seen since Bill Parcells was berating Lawrence Taylor on the sideline at Giants Stadium.

Yet, here Thibodeau is back in the playoffs for the third time in four years with a Knicks team that is prepared to run through a wall for him. The second-seeded Knicks open the playoffs Saturday at Madison Square Garden against the seventh seed Philadelphia 76ers.

With defending league MVP Joel Embiid back from knee surgery, it’s hard to imagine a tougher first-round challenge for a No. 2 seed than the one the Knicks have. Yet, to a man, the players believe they can win because they have a coach who wants it as much as they do and will do everything to prepare them for it.

“Yes, he’s passionate, but we all understand he’s prepared,” All-Star point guard Jalen Brunson said this week when asked what it is like when Thibodeau goes on a tirade. “So, he’s not yelling at us for some BS thing that probably didn’t happen. It’s never really something that as a player you can say, ‘I didn’t do that.’ He’s preparing us so he wants us to be proactive.”

True story: Thibodeau once got a technical for yelling at his own player. Thibodeau, then the coach at Minnesota, got so ticked off at Karl-Anthony  Towns that a referee figured he was yelling at him and 'T'-ed him up.

Another true story: Former Heat player Udonis Haslem once got so sick of hearing Thibodeau yell at his Chicago players during a game between the Heat and Bulls that Haslem went to bat for them. “That [guy] is a monster,” Haslem said to former Bull Joakim Noah on his podcast this week. “He was yelling at y’all and he annoyed me. I looked at him and said, ‘[Expletive] Thibs. Stop all that [expletive] yelling.’”

It takes a special sort of thick skin to play for Thibodeau, a guy who plays you big minutes and rides you hard. No one fits that mold more than Brunson, whose father, Rick, once played for and now coaches under Thibodeau.

“One thing when I was growing up that I learned from my dad is whenever he’s yelling, it’s not really him yelling,” Brunson said. “You have to understand what he’s actually saying and pull the message from the actual tone of voice or whatever. I think him yelling and screaming is better than him not caring at all.”

From the outside looking in, playing for the 66-year-old Thibodeau doesn’t look like a lot of fun. In fact, the Knicks coach topped a survey of 55 NBA players polled by the Athletic when asked the question “Which current coach, aside from your own, would you least want to play for?”

Yet, the feeling couldn’t be different in the Knicks' locker room, where Thibodeau’s obsession with preparation and doing things the right way is widely credited for both the team and individual success. Not only does Thibodeau hand players a thick playbook at the start of training camp — a throwback to another era in a time when there is so much video available — he quizzes them on it through the course of the season. Weirdly enough, the players don’t really mind it.

“I see this outside stuff and polls and I think it’s total bull,” said Donte DiVincenzo, who is averaging a career-high 15.5 points per game in his first season playing under Thibodeau. “I’ve been most grateful to him because he’s put me in positions to have a very good year. He doesn’t run you into the ground . . . He doesn’t ask anyone to work harder than he does.”

The stories about Thibodeau — a longtime assistant who didn’t get his first head coaching job until he was 52 years old — burning the midnight oil watching tape and game-planning are legendary. They also are probably a bit overblown.

“When the work gets done, you leave,” Thibodeau said when asked about his hours. “I look forward to coming in every day. Sometimes, I’m sitting there and I’m like, I might as well go. Whatever time that is, I go.

“It’s just getting the most out of your team. Whatever that is. I think you only get satisfaction from knowing you did everything you possibly could to get the most out of your team. And once you do that, that’s all you can do. So let the chips fall where they fall. But I never have regrets because I know what I’m putting into it.”

And so do his players.


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