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Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks look ‘soft’ amid East tumble

Ian O'Connor

Of all of the labels a fan can connect to an expert sports activities workforce, “soft” is among the many most hurtful. Right now, the Knicks are comfortable, which is one thing you aren’t allowed to be in New York. 

The Nuggets arrived on the Garden as losers of seven of their final eight, as a sub-.500 workforce that was making an attempt and failing to climate the long-term absences of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Denver nonetheless had the reigning league MVP, Nikola Jokic, however this was an opponent tailored for a market correction on the Garden, the place the Knicks had by some means misplaced seven of 12 video games. 

Instead, the Nuggets turned a highlight on the Knicks’ largest drawback: their lack of constant aggressive coronary heart. 

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They will not be practically as hungry as they have been final 12 months, once they introduced town recreation again from the lifeless. It’s not usually a workforce suffers a next-season hangover after a first-round playoff exit, however the Knicks have been so rightfully celebrated for bringing a reliable and decided model of ball again to the Garden after a biblical drought, it’s comprehensible why they could enter Year 2 of Tom Thibodeau’s restoration program feeling too good about themselves. 

But that doesn’t make it any extra forgivable. The Knicks provided so little resistance on their residence ground Saturday that they allowed the Nuggets to take a 30-point lead. Denver didn’t even trouble to play Jokic a single second within the fourth quarter, as a result of the celebrity middle had already accounted for 32 factors, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists in 27 minutes of labor that was a clinic within the artwork of taking part in world-class basketball with out world-class velocity or hops. 

KnicksTom Thibodeau reacts throughout the second half.Robert Sabo

Who cares that Jokic’s physique is harking back to that well-known shirtless photograph of Tom Brady on the pre-draft mix? The man is a grasp craftsman who made the Knicks look foolish whereas sinking 14 of his 19 photographs earlier than buttering his popcorn, kicking up his toes and watching the ultimate 12 minutes of a blowout that was far uglier than the 113-99 last prompt. 

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The reality is, Jokic’s brilliance wasn’t the first problem with the house workforce. 

Last 12 months’s Knicks embodied the Thibodeau Way and handled each possession as a do-or-die assertion on their character. This 12 months’s Knicks deal with depth and hustle as part-time choices. 

“We’ve got to fix the effort part,” Thibodeau mentioned, “and then we’ve got to go from there.” 

Thibodeau, the last word effort coach, remains to be speaking about his workforce’s need, or lack thereof, 23 video games into the season. His Knicks are 11-12, 5-8 at residence and losers of three straight as they head on a three-game street journey (San Antonio, Indiana, Toronto) earlier than returning to the Garden to face the defending champion Bucks and the league-best Warriors. 

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If the Knicks don’t begin competing with extra fireplace, they gained’t be making the playoffs. In truth, if the season ended immediately, they wouldn’t even qualify for the Eastern Conference play-in event. The purpose is as clear because the boos the Knicks heard from the Garden crowd. 

“We’ve just got to fight,” RJ Barrett mentioned. “At the end of the day all the X’s and O’s, that doesn’t matter. We’ve got to play defense and we’ve got to fight.” 

KnicksJulius Randle thinks the Knicks have to constantly play more durable. Robert Sabo

Barrett additionally mentioned, “We’ve just got to care,” earlier than strolling it again. Julius Randle conceded that the Knicks don’t have the offensive star energy of the Nets and different contenders, and that they’ll solely beat extra proficient opponents on the defensive finish. 

“In order to win games,” Randle mentioned, “we’ve obtained to play actually exhausting, extraordinarily exhausting. … Who we’re as a workforce, how we constructed this workforce and this tradition, is simply preventing defensively, the togetherness, simply the trouble and the hustle performs. 

“I feel like that’s what the city of New York loves, that’s what the fans love, when they know we’re out there giving it our all. I think sometimes we’re just a little bit too lax, or we might think the little details don’t matter sometimes.” 

Knicks followers don’t need to boo this workforce, not after receiving that particular present from final 12 months’s Knicks. But they’d no selection Saturday. They have been merely asking their younger gamers to compete as exhausting as Denver’s 35-year-old Jeff Green did when he chased down Immanuel Quickley close to the top of the third quarter and blocked a layup try along with his elbow. 

On high of the whole lot else, the Knicks surrendered a career-high 21 factors to Zeke Nnaji, who was averaging 6.8 this 12 months. When it was throughout, Thibodeau arrived more-than-fashionably late to his postgame press convention, undoubtedly after an prolonged dialog along with his workforce. The coach warned “there may be more changes coming.” No, he can’t banish Kemba Walker once more. 

“Right now,” Thibodeau mentioned, “we’re out of sorts.” 

Right now, the Knicks are the very factor a Thibodeau workforce is rarely, ever presupposed to be — comfortable.

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