Even if he loses every single game he coaches for the Knicks from here to eternity, Tom Thibodeau should never be allowed to pay for another meal, or cold drink, or tank of gas anywhere in the tri-state area. He has already done enough for a beaten-down city and fan base to earn a full scholarship for the rest of his life.
Without Thibodeau, the Knicks would have never reached the playoffs. They would have never hosted a first-round series, or created a community experience in the Garden on Sunday night that uplifted New York and transcended the game by a few country miles. The man has had a dream season in Year 1 of his dream job.
But … and you knew that “but” was coming … Thibodeau did not honor a head coach’s chief responsibility in Game 1 against the Hawks — namely, to put his or her team in the best position to win. He didn’t lose Game 1. He just didn’t do everything he could to win it.
For starters, there’s the starter, Elfrid Payton, who should no longer be starting, as my colleague Mike Vaccaro eloquently explained last week, in the rare newspaper column that was surely met with 100 percent fan-base approval. Payton all but engraved an invitation for his coach to bench him for Game 2 after he drifted aimlessly across eight Game 1 minutes, looking as lost in his first career playoff game as a first-time tourist stumbling around Times Square.
Of course, it’s not just about one best-of-seven game, but about the way Payton has played over the last five weeks. Including Sunday night, the point guard has failed to score in double figures in 16 of his last 17 games, shooting 35-for-103 from the floor. His plus/minus over his last eight games is -56. If Thibodeau is going to pull Payton 4:15 into the first quarter, and 3:46 into the third quarter, without reinserting him into either half, then he is conceding that he made a mistake starting him in the first place.
Thibs wouldn’t confirm the obvious Monday in his Zoom conference call with reporters, dodging a direct answer to the question of whether Frank Ntilikina or someone else will open at the point Wednesday night. He defaulted to coach-speak bunk about putting the best players on the floor and having confidence in everyone on his roster. In the postseason, Thibodeau knows you can only have confidence in the players who inspire it. His loyalty to Payton is odd because he has already proved he would bench his mother if it meant slightly improving his odds of victory. Remember, he effectively ran off Austin Rivers, the son of Doc Rivers, Thibs’ longtime friend and former boss with the champion Celtics of 2008.
Chances are, Thibodeau will realize that he has to make a lineup change after Payton basically disqualified himself from Game 2. No, that doesn’t change what happened in Game 1, when Trae Young smoked everyone the Knicks put on him, shredding the Thibs game plan to the tune of 32 points and 10 assists. When an ice-cold Ntilikina was thrown out there to shut down Young in the final seconds, the Knicks didn’t have a prayer of keeping it a tied game.
They did have a shot at forcing overtime, however, if they could execute a play within nine-tenths of a second. Thibodeau called for Alec Burks, who was absolutely on fire, to throw the ball to Randle, who was absolutely not on fire. If Randle had made the clean catch and sank a buzzer-beating turnaround, we’d all be saying and writing wonderful things about the Thibs-Randle dynamic, about how the coach trusted his franchise player in the biggest moment, even on a night when that franchise player missed 17 of 23 shots.
But that didn’t happen. And when things don’t happen in New York, people get hit, and tough questions get asked. Questions like, Why was Burks removed as an option on that final play, as the inbound passer, when he had scored 27 points in 26 minutes, and 18 of those points in the fourth quarter?
All across the board, the Knicks need to make adjustments before they see the Hawks again. Randle has to be Randle. Reggie Bullock needs to shoot the ball like he did in the regular season. RJ Barrett has to make that steal he whiffed on before Bogdan Bogdanovic’s game-tying 3.
“We have to make some corrections and be ready for Game 2,” Thibodeau said.
A lot of guys need to be better for the Knicks on Wednesday night. Including their great head coach.
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