Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the second half of...

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the second half of the team's NBA preseason game against the Pistons on Dec. 11, 2020, in Detroit. Credit: AP/Carlos Osorio

In his first time back on the sideline in nearly two years, Tom Thibodeau managed to keep calm Friday night, not lose his voice and even keep his mask intact.

That lasted about one quarter. Then the fact that this was the Knicks’ first preseason game gave way to the reality that every game and, really, every play are life and death for the coaching lifer.

Early in the second half, when Julius Randle committed a sloppy turnover and lackadaisical defense led to a three-point field goal, Thibodeau called timeout and ripped off his mask to get his message across to his team.

At other times, he screamed through the mask, and he eventually discarded it to work the referees. That may not have adhered to league protocols, but it was an example of exactly what fans can expect from Thibodeau.

A preseason game is no different from a playoff game. Practice is perhaps even more important than those games.

"I love it," Nerlens Noel said. "I’m the type of guy and he is, too, that doesn’t want the team to jack up a last-second three and that was on me, so I take a lot of pride in that myself and Coach just wants to continue to preach and practice great habits that will stay with us throughout the whole year.

"When it really starts clicking, you know, by game 40, game 50, when you really have to rely on those habits that you have, it’s really going to come in handy. I think we’re building on that from a good foundation right now."

There are few expectations for this Knicks team outside the locker room. Maybe even the players know that the oddsmakers are on target when they assess the Knicks’ chances of success on the court as slim. But even if they don’t have the talent to match up with the better teams in the league, they do have a coach who will generate a fighting chance.

When the game was over, Thibodeau was asked if getting back on the bench in a game for the first time since January 2019 — when the Minnesota Timberwolves let him go — was like riding a bike.

"I don’t know if it’s like riding a bike," he said. "You’re in an NBA arena with no fans, it was strange, but it was great. I told several people it was great to be back in the gym and practice, I love practice, but I love competition.

"Just to be out there in a game situation was great, but I think it also is a reminder like of how serious the COVID thing is when you’re looking out and you don’t see any fans."

His time away, much of it spent visiting with teams to watch other coaches’ methods and see how they conducted practice, brought him back here with perspective. But the desire to teach has only intensified, and for an outmanned roster, that teaching will be the simplest way back.

In the abbreviated training camp, Thibodeau has focused on the defensive side of the ball. Although it was just a preseason game against another team thought to be out of the playoff picture, the 90-84 win over the Detroit Pistons did provide a hint of what he wants to see.

"We want to be strong on both sides of the ball, but you’re in training camp, so putting the foundation in," Thibodeau said. "And like preseason games, there’s good and bad. The thing we have to look at is how can we improve today and how can we improve tomorrow.

"For the first game, we played 36, 37 good minutes of basketball and you’re striving to be a 48-minute team. So there’s a lot of work to be done. In every game, that would hold true. It’s important for us to understand why we either win or lose, make the necessary corrections and move forward."

That might not be appreciated right now by a fan base that flooded social media with complaints when Thibodeau went with a starting lineup of Elfrid Payton, Alec Burks, RJ Barrett, Randle and Noel, given that Barrett is the only one looked at as a long-term piece for the franchise’s future.

Thibodeau talked them down, explaining that he will shuffle different combinations throughout the preseason. He demonstrated that minutes have to be earned, no matter the player’s age or potential.

That meant Noel got the start ahead of Mitchell Robinson. Immanuel Quickley never got off the bench. Obi Toppin came off the bench behind Randle and played 20 minutes. Payton started weeks after being waived and brought back at a bargain price.

"We’ll probably mix and match a little differently tomorrow," Thibodeau said Saturday afternoon, referring to Sunday night’s preseason game against the Pistons.

"We haven’t decided yet completely on how that might be. Although we want to see different combinations on the floor . . . who we start with might be different from who we finish with.

"We got a look at Obi and Julius for a short sequence in the first half, so experimenting that way is important for us also. We’ll see. We’ll just take it day by day."


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