When Immanuel Quickley entered Friday night’s game, even the pumped-in soundtrack of fan noise at the empty Madison Square Garden seemed to rise a level to somewhere just short of the loudest concerts that the arena has housed in better times.
The only sound louder than the cheers for the explosive rookie might be the cries throughout the fan base for Quickley to ascend to the starting role at point guard. And maybe for that, it’s good that Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is not a presence on social media.
After Quickley scored 14 of his team-high 25 points in the fourth quarter to help the Knicks pull away and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thibodeau was asked if he was considering a move that he has resisted — pushing the 20-year-old into the starting lineup. And he remained steadfast in his resistance.
"There’s always thought with everything," he said. "And because someone doesn’t start, that’s really not that important to me. It’s having groups that play well together, and you can always finish with the people who you feel will always give you the best chance to win the game.
"So whatever the game calls for, you can try to take advantage of that. But we’re always looking at different lineups and what works best and how guys complement each other. So he’s going to have a significant role. But we’re going to need everyone. So tonight was his night and Sunday afternoon it could be somebody else’s."
His reasoning is sound, and so are the unsaid parts of it. Quickley is a work in progress, just as likely to endure a 1-for-11 shooting night (as he did Tuesday in Utah) as he is to explode for 31 points (as he did the game before that in Portland). He is still learning to defend at the level that Thibodeau demands, and his playmaking is mostly instinct.
But also left unsaid are the realities of the situation. Thibodeau is loyal to veterans, particularly hard-nosed ones such as the incumbent starter, Elfrid Payton. But that is where the gaps lie between what Thibodeau is trying to achieve in the short term and the long term.
He is trying to lift the Knicks out of their long run of embarrassing struggles and make them a destination again. But the long-term reality is that this team is nothing like what it will need to be to contend for a title rather than a spot near the bottom of the playoff picture.
Payton is a holdover from last season’s squad whom the Knicks waived in the offseason instead of picking up an $8 million team option. He signed back for a discount and the team has no commitment to him beyond this season.
Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. already have been buried behind Payton and Quickley. So the future is either Quickley or someone who is not here yet. And with the team facing the possibility of a place in the lottery and loaded with salary-cap space to facilitate a free-agent signing or a trade, the Knicks need to decide whether the prospect of a spot in the postseason is worth slowing the learning curve for a player who could be a big part of their future.
At least Thibodeau has the comfort of working in conjunction with team president Leon Rose, a longtime ally, and executive vice president William Wesley.
"The thing is, you’re always doing what you think is best for the team and the organization,’’ Thibodeau said. "In regards to Leon and Wes, I talk to those guys every day about the team. You have to make decisions in terms of how much time everyone gets. Nothing is set in stone. You’re basing it on performance and practice is important, but then what you actually do in the games is also important. So you try to make the best decision possible for the team."
Even though Thibodeau has not given Quickley the starting role, he has shown a willingness to let him finish games and play extended minutes. He played 25 minutes off the bench and Payton played 23 Friday. What Thibodeau basically has done this season is ride him when he’s hot and throw out a caution sign when he’s struggling.
One thing Quickley has done is shrug off the struggles.
"We saw it right from the first day he got here the way he approached things," Thibodeau said. "He’s a student of the game, a great worker, a great attitude, a great approach. And the ups and downs of an NBA season, I think he prepares himself very well and his confidence comes from his preparation.
"He has great concentration, great effort every day. And he can play well even when he doesn’t shoot well. He obviously has a lot of confidence in that shot and his all-around game. And he’s one of those guys who will continue to get better and better with each game. So very pleased with his progress."
Smith asks to join Westchester
Smith, who has played in just three games this season, asked for permission to join the Westchester Knicks in the G League bubble in Orlando. The Knicks will allow him to participate, hoping that the repetition in game action can help him recover some of his value. The decision, which first was reported by the New York Daily News, comes as Smith is playing out the final year of his rookie contract.
Reggie Bullock participated in practice fully Saturday and will be a game-time decision Sunday afternoon against the Clippers.