Injuries and Intensity Define Knicks' Playoff Run

New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau finds himself with a roster stripped to its bare essentials.

by Faruk Imamovic
Injuries and Intensity Define Knicks' Playoff Run
© Getty Images/Elsa

New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau finds himself with a roster stripped to its bare essentials. With only six or seven healthy players at his disposal, each athlete steps onto the court with a mentality defined by dogged persistence, fierce competitiveness, and ego-free play.

"Trust the pass," he instructs them, and they do. "Fight like hell," he commands, and they do. "Get better every day," he insists, and they do. For Thibodeau, the simplicity of his coaching philosophy now manifests in the stark reality of his team's situation. With three or four players often playing the entire game, Thibodeau, who has faced criticism throughout his career for the heavy workload he demands of his stars, finds himself with no other choice.

In the throes of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Indiana Pacers, the first four games reflect the precarious balance of Thibodeau’s strategy. The Knicks secured victories in the first two games, only to see the Pacers claim the next two. Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, and Donte DiVincenzo emerge as key players, each embodying the team's relentless spirit. However, the absence of OG Anunoby, sidelined by a hamstring injury in Game 2, underscores the fragility of their success.

The Knicks' 31-5 record with Anunoby on the court this season speaks volumes about his impact. His injury transforms Thibodeau's freedom into confinement, making it evident that while the same players can be run out minute after minute, they must be the right players. The rotation, if it can be called that, is essentially a non-rotation, a quarter-turn before snapping back into place. The season’s earlier injuries to Julius Randle and other key players such as Bojan Bogdanovic, backup center Mitchell Robinson, and Anunoby in the playoffs have reduced Thibodeau’s options to a bare minimum.

The Relentless Drive: Minutes and Mindset

Josh Hart, embodying Thibodeau’s relentless spirit, played 48 minutes in four straight playoff games before Game 3 in Indiana, totaling 192 consecutive minutes of game time. This remarkable feat makes him the first player to do so in the postseason since Jimmy Butler, another Thibodeau-coached player, achieved it in 2013. For Jalen Brunson, who played 32 minutes after missing most of the first half in Game 2 against the Pacers, it might have felt like a day off. Donte DiVincenzo routinely clocks 44 to 48 minutes, and Isaiah Hartenstein logged 39 in the first game without Robinson. Thibodeau's historical approach to player minutes is reflected in Joakim Noah’s famous comment, "But he doesn't understand the rest thing."

In this critical juncture of the postseason, Thibodeau’s roster dwindles to five or six players, and the concept of rest is an obsolete notion. Thibodeau's approach to workload is to deflect or ignore. When asked about his players embracing heavy minutes, he nonchalantly responds, "They can do better," scanning the room to ensure his joke lands. His humor, often overlooked, is brittle and dry, matching his coaching philosophy.

The Knicks' unique style, a blend of slow pace and frantic energy, showcases their determination. They dominate rebounds and loose balls through sheer desire rather than athleticism. Their pathological approach to keeping rebounds alive by batting them across the court often surprises opponents with its intensity. Ten games into the Knicks’ postseason, their ferocity has left both the Pacers and the Philadelphia 76ers before them taken aback.

The idea that a team adopts its coach's personality can be both patronizing and patriarchal. However, it’s evident that Brunson, Hart, and DiVincenzo found in Thibodeau a coach who recognizes and amplifies their shared belief: strength in unity. "To us, it's more about being so competitive we don't want to come out of the game," Hart states, while Brunson adds, "There is no quote-unquote burden."

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New York Knicks© Getty Images/Sarah Stier

Thibodeau’s Unwavering Vision

After the Knicks clinched their first-round series with a Game 6 victory over Philadelphia, Thibodeau was asked if he had considered taking Hart out of the game. His response, "It was a passing thought, and I let it pass," exemplifies his approach. Hart, with his engaging and slightly off-kilter manner, reflects the high-energy and high-stakes environment fostered by Thibodeau. A tall can of a high-octane energy drink and a bottle labeled SLEEP next to Hart in the locker room perfectly encapsulates the yin and yang of the Thibodeau experience.

Watching Thibodeau closely reveals his distinct coaching style. He never claps, a stark contrast to the typical basketball coach. Instead, he stands near half court, arms folded, mouth slightly open, eyes squinting, and rolled papers in hand. His body language is fluent in frustration, expressing his intellectual rather than emotional investment in the game.

Thibodeau’s refusal to partake in the ritualistic gathering of coaches during timeouts signals his certainty and assuredness. He heads straight to the bench, drawing up plays and adjusting the Knicks’ defense while other coaches are still addressing their teams. "He's one of the most prepared coaches," says DiVincenzo. "That's not a shot at any other coach, but Thibs is on a whole 'nother level." This level of preparation instills confidence in his players, allowing them to play more freely and ignore fatigue.

The Art of Preparation and Detail

Thibodeau’s intricate level of detail becomes apparent when listening to him closely. Each answer, delivered quickly and without inflection, is a lesson in basketball strategy. He refuses to simplify his explanations, insisting that his players and listeners keep up or get left behind. Describing Pacers point guard Tyrese Haliburton as "an offense unto himself" or discussing the evolution of 5s in the game, Thibodeau's insights reveal his deep understanding of the sport.

Despite his outward weariness, Thibodeau’s dedication is unwavering. His office at the team facility in Westchester County always has its light on, a testament to his relentless pursuit of any possible advantage. He studies every detail, seeking to understand who wants the ball late in the game and who tends to falter under pressure. Hartenstein notes, "I thought we were going to be practicing a lot more and doing more physical stuff. It's just a lot of preparation and mental stuff."

Thibodeau’s belief in his team is evident. He knows they will either keep winning or collapse trying, and there is nobility in both outcomes. His players have shown their willingness to run through walls for him and for themselves. The challenge lies in knowing when to place the wall in front of them.

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