With eight games remaining in a 32-42 season, Knicks coach...

With eight games remaining in a 32-42 season, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau and his team are not mailing it in.

Credit: AP/Rusty Jones

MIAMI — Last season the Knicks treasured the chance -- even if it lasted only  five games -- for the young players on their roster to get the opportunity to feel the atmosphere of a postseason run, to understand the raised intensity and the work it takes to get through it.

This season, that lesson is not going to be available to them; they're completing a disappointing  season that has them bound for the lottery and still in search of a star. So it’s not surprising that there already has been an eye on the offseason  — with speculation about the status of  coach Tom Thibodeau, the front office and almost every roster piece.

But there are lessons here. Some, like Friday night’s surprising comeback win over Miami, gave a chance for the team’s trio of rookies and second-year guard Immanuel Quickley to test themselves against a contending team, and for a night they responded. The Knicks put together a 30-5 run to erase a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit and Quickley scored 20 points in the quarter.

Thibodeau has insisted that the approach is to ignore the standings and the long-term picture and focus on each game and play to win. The team has responded by going 7-4 to lift its record to 32-42.

“Honestly, really since the All-Star break, every game we’ve been feeling good about ourselves for real,” RJ Barrett said. “We’ve been playing great basketball. Even some of those losses, we’ve been playing amazing basketball since the All-Star break. You’re seeing it more and more, just trying to get better every day.”

As the Knicks have fallen from the fourth seed last season to this season’s troubles — five games behind Atlanta for the final play-in spot with eight games left — there has been a constant stream of criticism and questioning. It has come from the media, from social media and from voices even within the organization.

After Friday's win, Thibodeau veered the conversation from the performance of the bench to emphasize the need for the oft-criticized starters.

"You guys are trying to nitpick this, nitpick that," he said. "You need everyone across the course of a season. We love our young guys. They bring it every day. They’re supposed to bring energy. You need RJ. You need Julius [Randle]. You need Mitch [Robinson]. You need Evan [Fournier]. You need Alec [Burks]. You need everyone. It’s a team, not an individual thing." 

The Knicks haven’t given in to any on-court bickering, as Miami did this past week, but they certainly haven’t had a smooth ride this season. Randle has shown his frustration with criticism, pointedly reacting to fans. There has been front-office bickering directed at Thibodeau. So it’s a wide audience that Thibodeau may have been speaking to when he defended every part of the locker room and maybe himself, too, with his comments.

Taj Gibson, the elder statesman of the roster, is as confused as anyone how the Knicks got here.

“I think about it all the time,” he said. “Really, the amount of talent we have and the amount of camaraderie we have at times with our group, it’s real frustrating. But you’ve got to look forward. You’ve got to look to what’s in front of you. You can’t look back. You’ve got a totally different roster last year. We added some new fixtures, which some games it works, some games it doesn’t. We’ve just got to keep moving forward, try to get a rhythm, try to do this thing the right way.”

Obi Toppin agreed, looking to leave a good impression down the stretch. Afforded much more playing time with Randle out, he has averaged 14.3 points and 8.7 rebounds in the last three games.

“Just basically playing with the guys, knowing that we’re coming back next year and we’re still going to be with these guys,” he said hopefully. “And finding a rhythm playing winning basketball, doing the right things, rebounding, playing good defense, passing the ball. Doing the little things that are going to help a team win. We never want to fall back on our good habits. So we’re just going to practice that every day and get better.”

Gibson — flamethrower?

Gibson is closer to a job coaching than he is to the prime of his playing career, as he'll turn 37 years old shortly after this season ends. But late in his career he has found an unexpected skill that  could extend his playing days — three-point shooting.

During the first eight seasons of his career, when he was with Chicago and Oklahoma City, he shot 4-for-35 from beyond the arc. He went 18-for-69 in his two seasons with Minnesota and then went 7-for-29 in his first two seasons with the Knicks. But this season the 6-9 Gibson has connected on 13 of 29 attempts. He is 9-for-14 in his last 13 games and has made his last seven tries from the right corner.

So how did Gibson suddenly become the best corner three-point shooter in the NBA?

“Sometimes when you’re a professional on a team, sometimes you have to sacrifice your own good for the greater good of the team,” he said. “Sometimes that may not be the shot that you’d be able to just take sometimes. 'Cause you have to maybe roll to suck in the defense, different things like that. You always have to sacrifice for the good of the team.”

He paused for a moment and added with a laugh, referring to Thibodeau:  “Plus he didn’t let me shoot as much as I wanted to. Now he’s seen me putting the work in and now he’s seen guys like, ‘Hey, Taj is really working.’ He’s like, ‘All right, shoot it.’ I’m rocking out with it right now.”

Gibson has a team option on his contract for next season worth $5.2 million. Depending on what happens with Robinson and the rest of the roster, that might be a high price for a third or fourth center. But his value to Thibodeau and the Knicks is worth something and he wants to continue playing as long as possible.

If his playing days are over, however, he is anxious for the next step — coaching.

"For sure, because I love being around the game,” he said. “It comes easy to me. First thing, I love it. You’ve got to love watching film. I love just being around the guys. I love having the communication as far as just being on the court. And even in the workouts, I love being in the gym on off days with young guys and handling my business.”

“I think he’d be great,” Thibodeau said. “He wants to play as long as he can, and I think he’d be terrific. Veteran leadership. The fact that he’s been such an unselfish player his whole career. He’s had basically every role there is. And to be honest, he’s starred in every role he’s been in.”

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