The Root of the Knicks’ Success? Caring When They Didn’t Have To.

Of all the postseason-ensuring victories throughout the Knicks’ grand reawakening of a daily season, none rose to the stage of their most compelling, collective triumph. That can be the defeat of each crew’s most formidable opponent: the coronavirus pandemic.

Like most groups in all sports activities, they’ve had their brushes with Covid-19. But at the least till a swing out West that at all times loomed as a caveat to their playoff seeding, the Knicks may very well be counted on to “show up every night,” to cite a dearly departed season ticket holder I lengthy knew.

Some N.B.A. groups did little to enhance on borderline playoff rosters or gutted them utterly. Others that figured to be measurably superior to the Knicks have wobbled below the weight of too many nights once they didn’t present up — bodily or spiritually.

The N.B.A. this season has skilled an acute blowout downside, on tempo late final month for extra video games after the All-Star break determined by 20 or extra factors since 1967-68. Let Jeff Van Gundy, the loquacious community analyst and former Knicks coach, start to elucidate.

“In a trying season for everybody — with testing and Covid, injuries and load management — you just haven’t known who’s going to be there, night in and night out,” he mentioned in a phone interview. “But with the Knicks, you have known, for the most part, they were coming to play.”

This is the place the hiring of Tom Thibodeau as coach was seamlessly set to pandemic situations. Especially for what Van Gundy referred to as “the whole crowd thing,” which means that as a result of there have been no followers in arenas for many of the season, there has largely been no exterior pressure serving to groups maintain on to the rope after falling behind.

From no followers to some followers, these Knicks didn’t a lot have to be incentivized by a Madison Square Garden crowd. The coach’s baritone voice has been greater than sufficient.

Who amongst the rising younger gamers (RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley), veterans on expiring contracts (Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks) or reacquainted Thibodeau loyalists (Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose) was not going to be all-in with an old-school taskmaster, in his first year on the job?

Van Gundy, who had Thibodeau on his Knicks staff two decades ago during the last multiseason period of Knicks relevance, mentioned an unnamed coach who told him that the higher the level of basketball you reach, winning during the regular season tends to “matter less and less to the players.” Maybe that’s an exaggeration, or simply not true. But with these Knicks, Van Gundy said, “the care factor has been exceptionally high.”

Forgive the nostalgia, but their season has been reminiscent of 1982-83, when Hubie Brown rolled into town with a reputation much like Thibodeau’s, preaching defense and devotion, albeit in an exacting voice that over time grew discordant.

“In the regular season, you can’t be top-heavy, you need depth, which Leon did a great job with,” Van Gundy said. “In the playoffs, you need greatness.”

Watching the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic dismantle the Knicks in Denver last week may well have been a playoff preview. But wherever the Knicks’ season goes from here, it has been all the more astonishing when considering how little they have to show for their last five lottery picks, all top 10.

Basically, it’s the ever-improving Barrett, at least until Obi Toppin gets to prove he is more than the second coming of Kenny Walker, better known as Sky. Kristaps Porzingis? Long gone. Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox? Might as well be.

Here, again, is where the Thibodeau hiring has been a timely blessing. You may have argued last fall that this would be the perfect season to sacrifice achievement for player development, with few paying customers to please. I know I did. Why not find out once and for all about Ntilikina and Knox? Why not turn Toppin and Quickley loose from Day 1?

Thibodeau was clear from the start: He wasn’t interested in coaching a team on training wheels, instead subscribing to the maxim that the best teaching environment is a winning one.

Peter Roby, a childhood friend of Thibodeau’s, who in 1985 hired him for the coaching staff at Harvard, likes to playfully remind people of how Thibodeau, the acclaimed defensive guru, was known in his “knucklehead” youth for never passing up a shot. But in a recent telephone interview, he brought up Thibodeau’s age, 63, old enough to have been introduced to the pro game by the Knicks’ early 1970s championship team.

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