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After Knicks are called out by second straight opponent, is it time for Thibodeau to answer

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Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau
Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau.
AP Photo/Nick Cammett

The New York Knicks dropped a heartbreaker on Tuesday night, blowing a nine-point lead with 35 seconds left before eventually losing to the Dallas Mavericks 126-121 in overtime. 

In doing so, they became the first team in 13,885 games to lose a game when up by nine with that little time left. However, that shouldn’t be the main narrative when thinking about this most recent loss. 

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There are a lot of narratives you can take away from the game that aren’t the end of the world for Knicks fans.

New York was without Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett, and Obi Toppin. It took a career-defining performance from Luka Doncic, who finished with 60 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists. New York saw Quentin Grimes continue to emerge as a legitimate NBA starter, and it took a fortuitous bounce on a final missed free throw just to force overtime. 

However, the one factor that’s hard to shake off is what Doncic said after the game. 

After scoring 27 of his 60 points in pick-and-roll situations, Doncic said, “I mean, we know New York is not gonna double. I love the pick and roll, I think everybody knows that. So just keep rolling the pick and roll.”

Not doubling one of the best scorers in the NBA as he continues to torch you would seem to be a questionable coaching decision. However, the comments by Doncic were also the second time in two straight games an opposing player called out the Knicks’ defensive strategy. 

After Georges Niang hit four three-point shots in the 76ers’ comeback win over the Knicks on Christmas, Niang told reporters, “I mean, I don’t know why they were playing in a drop coverage. I probably haven’t seen that since college maybe.”

Once is a problem. Twice is a pattern. 

It’s clear that the Knicks’ defense, despite their improvements in recent months, is becoming predictable and opponents have begun to expose the flaws. It’s also clear that head coach Tom Thibodeau has not been adjusting his defensive strategy when teams begin to take advantage. 

If you won’t throw an extra defender at an elite scorer who has almost half of his team’s points then when will you? If you refuse to change your strategy even when it’s not working then at what point does it become less about the opponent being good and more about you giving them every opportunity to beat you?

Since Thibodeau has built his reputation as a defensive coach, this recent trend, paired with the Knicks’ inability to play consistent defense during his tenure, is problematic. 

The Knicks are a young team with a few players who are emerging as intriguing NBA players. Jalen Brunson is shining out of Doncic’s shadow. Quentin Grimes just played a career-best game when thrust into a primary scoring role. Immanuel Quickley and Miles McBride have proven to be elite defenders while Quickley has been a scoring catalyst off of the bench.

However, questions remain about whether Thibodeau is the right coach to get the most out of them. 

Given his explosion for 33 points on 7-of-16 shooting from beyond the arc, it’s fair to wonder why Grimes is not a bigger part of the Knicks’ offense when they’re healthy. With Quickley adding 15 assists to his 13 points, it’s curious why Thibodeau doesn’t seem to like him running the offense with the starters. Isaiah Hartenstein had his fourth straight game with a negative double-digit plus/minus yet he keeps getting consistent minutes. 

These are all fair questions about a coach who has seemed rigid in his approach to the game and has not been adapting as opponents have caught up. 

Another example is the rotation that he used on Tuesday night. 

The Knicks had success when they moved to a shorter nine-man rotation after their first loss to the Mavericks. However, with Brunson out on Tuesday and Barrett hurt two minutes into the game, Thibodeau stubbornly stuck to his shorter rotation, playing five players for more than 45 minutes. It’s not a surprise that the Knicks faded down the stretch.

Despite his starting small forward going out of the game, Thibodeau gave no minutes to back-up small forward Cam Reddish. A player who also happens to be a strong defender who could have helped slow down Doncic. Instead, Derrick Rose was back in the rotation, adding a third guard off of the bench. 

The Knicks’ eight-game winning streak was a great accomplishment and it underscored the real truth that there is talent on this team. However, there is no star, so the Knicks have no margin for error. They need a perfectly executed gameplan in order to take down the top teams in either conference and if they can’t get that from Thibodeau, it might be time to try to find somebody who can help them get there.

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Luka Doncic drives against the Knicks
Dallas guard Luka Doncic (77) drives against New York guard Quentin Grimes (6) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero)