A few days ago, someone told Tom Thibodeau that, statistically speaking, his Knicks had one of the best defenses in the NBA.
Thibodeau wasn’t interested in spending too much time breaking down the club’s defensive rankings.
“The most important statistic is the winning, and we still have a long way to go,” Thibodeau said during his chat with reporters. ”Sometimes, people get locked in to numbers. And you can make numbers say a lot of things. But the reality is the most important number is the winning part of it. Did you score more than our opponent did? That’s what matters.”
That bottom-line approach is one of the biggest factors in New York’s surprising 8-8 start. Thanks in part to Thibodeau and his coaching staff, the Knicks have exceeded preseason expectations as they close in on the first quarter of the season.
They’ve had peaks and valleys offensively so far. But, for the most part, they’ve been sound on defense.
New York enters its game on Friday against the Sacramento Kings with the fourth-ranked defense in the league in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions. They’re also the best defense in terms of opponent field goal percentage (43 percent) and 3-point percentage (30.7). We'll have more on that below.
Those who’ve played with Thibodeau in the past recognize his impact on the Knicks.
“He’s just taking each guy and their skill set and bringing the most out of them,” says longtime NBA veteran, NBC Sports Boston Celtics analyst and Sirius XM NBA Radio host Brian Scalabrine.
Scalabrine played in Boston when Thibodeau was running the defense under Doc Rivers. He then played in Chicago during Thibodeau’s first two years as head coach.
He sees Thibodeau and his staff approaching their craft the same way Thibodeau did in Chicago.
“Thibs is not going to change – he is who he is. He knows how to coach basketball, he’s going to coach it to win,” Scalabrine says.
On the Knicks, he adds:
"Right now, I love the way that they’re buying in. I thought Mitchell Robinson in the past didn’t put the energy and effort it took guarding the pick and roll. Man, I was really impressed with watching him this season. I think he’s getting down, he’s challenging shots, he has a bigger presence. Julius Randle and his play-making ability – (Thibodeau) taking a guy like that and saying, ‘You can be one of the better players in the NBA (but) you’ve got to learn how to pass.’ I know (Randle) had OK vision in the past but nothing like what we’re seeing right now.”
Before the season, someone who knows Thibodeau well was wondering how he’d handle the losing that most expected the Knicks to endure this season.
“After a loss, he’ll spend all night in his office trying to figure out how to win,” the person said. “He’s not going to accept losing.”
This isn’t to say that Thibodeau is some maniacal, win-at-all-costs coach. Thibodeau’s friend was suggesting that he’d continue to work and do what it takes to find ways to win games.
Scalabrine sees it similarly.
When asked how Thibodeau would handle the Knicks potentially being out of the playoff picture by the end of the season, he said, “I don’t think he’s going to accept that, if that’s what you’re asking me. I don’t think you want him to accept that. In his mind, he’s going to somehow squeeze every ounce of juice out of these guys and they’re going to figure out a way to get into the playoffs.
“If they’re in that play-in game, they’re going to be ready to go and ready to make the playoffs.”
Entering play Friday, New York is in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, virtually tied with sixth place Atlanta (7-7) and seventh-place Cleveland (7-7).
THIBS PLEASED WITH BARRETT
RJ Barrett had a career-high 28 points and five assists in New York’s win over Golden State on Thursday. Thibodeau praised Barrett for his performance against the Warriors and also noted that Barrett continued to contribute to winning even when he was shooting poorly. Earlier this year, Barrett had two separate stretches where he made fewer than five of 20 attempts behind the arc.
“He started off the season where he had a big opening night and I think teams came after him pretty good. But he’s adjusting and even during the stretch where he wasn’t shooting particularly well he was rebounding great and he was playmaking,” Thibodeau said. “I think now he’s playing a great all-around game. His floor game is terrific. His defense is vastly improved. And he’s making the right reads. He’s got a good blend going of scoring and passing. he’s commanding a lot of attention which is opening things up so I’m very pleased with his progress.”
IS IT SUSTAINABLE?
The Knicks have had six-straight seasons of winning percentages of .400 or below. They have started out strong in some of them but, eventually, the wheels fell off for New York and they ended up missing the playoffs by a wide margin. Will it be different this season? Who knows? But one thing Thibodeau has said regularly about his team is that they approach practice well.
“I love our young guys, particularly with their attitude and their approach. Every day they come in with a lot of energy. Some days we make mistakes. But the next day there’s a determination to correct mistakes and get better,” he said. “If we do that each and every day we’ll continue to grow. That’s what I love about them. Our vets are doing a great job. It’s a total team effort. Even the guys that aren’t in the rotation right now have been phenomenal in practice and I think the quality of practice is critical for our development.”
As noted above, New York’s defense is one of the best in the league. But as The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov noted in a question to Thibodeau on Thursday, the club may be benefiting from opponents missing open 3-point attempts.
Per NBA.com tracking, the Knicks are around league average when it comes to the percentage of 3-point attempts in which they have a defender within four feet of the shooter. But they give up the fourth-highest percentage of wide open threes (defined as a defender being six feet away or further from the shooter).
They lead the league in opponent 3-point percentage (30.7 percent) and rank 18th in opponent 2-point field-goal percentage. They also allow the fourth highest 3-point attempts per 100 possessions.
Here’s Thibodeau answer when asked about the idea of New York allowing a high rate of 3-point shots:
“We started (defensively) with building a foundation of getting back and getting our defense set. We always talk about take care of the ball, the paint and react up covering the line and finish the defense with a challenge to the shot and the rebound. It requires multiple efforts and everyone tied together. We’re still a work in progress. There’s a lot of things we could do better and we will as time goes on.
"We need to continue to practice and learn. The challenge is, when you’re on the road like this, when you’re playing a lot of games and your practice time is limited. But when we do practice, we have to maximize that time and make sure that we are making the corrections and improvements. If we’re doing the right things each and every day I know that we’ll be playing our best at the end.”
The Knicks’ G League team won’t be the only members of the organization in a bubble next month. Knicks roving scout Makhtar Ndiaye will be in Cameroon next month for the second round of the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 Qualifiers, which will take place in a bubble.
Ndiaye won’t be there to scout. He’s the general manager of the Senagalese national team. The roster assembled by Ndiaye went 3-0 in the first round of the AfroBasket Qualifiers in late November in Rwanda. Ndiaye, the first Senagalese player in the NBA, was part of the Senegal squad that won the 1997 AfroBasket title.
Senegal has already qualified for AfroBasket 2021, scheduled for late August in Rwanda. The country has also earned a spot in one of the four Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, scheduled for July. Senegal will compete in the qualifying tournament in Serbia with a chance to earn a spot in the Tokyo Olympics.