Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau looks on against the Detroit...

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau looks on against the Detroit Pistons in the second half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Monday, March 25, 2024. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

CHICAGO — What Tom Thibodeau has done for the Knicks was on display for all to see in Thursday night's comeback victory over the Kings. Hours after the crushing news was released that Julius Randle will not return this season, he put together a game plan that backed up his constant mantra that no matter how shorthanded, the team has enough to win.

On the court, Thibodeau has revamped the culture at Madison Square Garden, creating a team that is a lure to players rather than the toxic dump it was regarded as before he arrived. Despite skeptical fans' belief that he is too devoted to his veteran favorites, he has developed one player after another. He is getting the most out of every player on the roster — from ascending star Jalen Brunson to the fringes of the roster, where players have risen when needed. Miles McBride has gone from a barely used backup to a 40-minute contributor. 

It’s a full load of responsibilities and one that Thibodeau embraces. His players and coaches working against him all point to the preparation of his teams — and it should be enough to allow him to be a bulletproof coach for the Knicks for as long as he wants to patrol the sideline.

But what Thibodeau shouldn’t have to do is sit through questioning the way he did after Thursday's game. Because no member of the Knicks' front office or ownership will speak, he has been forced to be the face of the franchise for questions that shouldn’t be his to answer. The last media session for team president Leon Rose and then-general manager Scott Perry took place  nearly three years ago. The medical staff is off limits to media.

So Thibodeau has been tasked with relaying the message daily, updating the status of  Randle and OG Anunoby, among others.

And while he usually is vague and offers little in terms of actual information, his positive message was contradicted when Randle spoke Thursday with Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT. The awkward damage control afterward did little to make it easier for Thibodeau to explain away.

In talking about how Randle suffered a setback with his dislocated right shoulder during practice, Haynes changed his original story and reporting on-air from “a full-contact session” to “a full-contact session in pads,” quoting Randle word for word except — if we believe the change — forgetting to add in the “in pads” portion of the quote from Randle. That change would make it look more in line with the team’s reports..

It’s a franchise strategy that isn’t changing, and Thibodeau is  not the only coach stuck with this assignment. But as frustrating as it may be for the media and for fans who seek information — and don’t even bring up the NBA’s neck-deep partnership with sports betting that relies on accurate information — it’s just a bad look. It's frustrating to have the face of the franchise forced to trek to a table and tell half-truths.

Minutes police

One criticism that Thibodeau has taken and ignored throughout his career is that he plays his stars too many minutes. Maybe ignored isn’t the right word, given that he bristles at the notion that he overuses them to exhaustion. But even in an injury-plagued season, with the injuries almost all having a clear play in which they occurred, Thibodeau has stuck to minutes guidelines for some players t and managed to keep most of his players from the top of the minutes-per-game charts.

Only Brunson cracks the top 20 in minutes per game at 35.2, which puts him 17th in the NBA. The next Knick on the list is Josh Hart, 42nd overall, and then Donte DiVincenzo at No. 101. But mostly what Thibodeau has done is play to win and provided more rest with a reduced practice schedule.

“I think you have to figure out what’s best for your team, what gives you the best chance to win,” he said. “And then if you have guys who can handle that, that’s what they should get. And if you check the boxscores every night, there’s a lot of guys who play those type of minutes. And then oftentimes someone may take a look at a particular game or If you have somebody with foul trouble or injury or went to overtime, so somebody played extended minutes. But if you look at it over 10 games or 20 games, you say, OK, his average minutes are where everyone else’s average minutes are. And that’s always the case.

“People tend not to look at — what are the star players playing? Because usually you’re matching their players with a primary defender. So when LeBron is on the floor, that’s when that player is on the floor. So LeBron is playing 39, he’s 39. If DeMar [DeRozan] is playing 40, then whoever is guarding him has to play 40. Otherwise, you’re reducing your chances of winning. And the bottom line is to win games.”

Easing in

Anunoby returned to the lineup Friday, and he hopes  it’s for the rest of the season and playoffs this time — unlike when he came back after an 18-game absence and lasted only three games before inflammation in his surgically repaired right elbow forced him to sit out nine more games.

Asked if he is approaching this return differently, he said, “Kind of the same thing. Maybe less shooting. Building up the shooting, not just going back to shooting like I normally shoot. So just taking my time and it’s going to get better and better.”

50 wins in reach

The Knicks have had 13 seasons of at least 50 wins in their history, and they still have a shot at reaching that level this season. At 45-32 with five games left, the Knicks would have to win out to reach it. The last time the Knicks  reached 50 wins was 2012-13, when they won 54 games.

But the real task isn’t 50 as much as it is playoff positioning. With four losses in the last five games, the Knicks enter Sunday night’s game in Milwaukee tied for fourth place in the Eastern Conference with Orlando, which has the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of taking the season series. They are a half-game behind third-seeded Cleveland and two games behind second-seeded Milwaukee but also only two games ahead of seventh-seeded Miami, and they still are in danger of  falling into the play-in tournament.

Asked if he watches the standings, Brunson said, “My coach is Tom Thibodeau. Of course.”

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