What happened to the vaunted defense of Tom Thibodeau?
Yes, the Knicks’ offense has been humming at high levels for this franchise, but the coach’s specialty is lagging behind this season, especially of late.
The Knicks ranked 17th in defensive efficiency heading into Friday’s NBA schedule, a ranking even worse than during last season’s drop in the draft lottery.
They’ve mostly roasted on 3-pointers, allowing the third-most 3-pointers in the NBA going into Friday. It’s a product of Thibodeau’s system, which is designed to protect the paint while leaving the Knicks susceptible to kick passes to the 3-point line, but of late the scheme has been backfiring.
“His general setup is to stop the ball with defenders off the ball inside and forcing kicks,” said one NBA coach. “That’s why they’re giving up a lot of 3s.”
Part of it is as simple as teams are finally burying their open 3s. But there are other factors as well. RJ Barrett and Julius Randle have been below-average defensemen with inconsistent effort. Opponents are engaging the Knicks’ centers in more pick-and-rolls, making it harder to hide weak defenders in rotations. With the starting lineup, those weak defenders are easy to find: Randle, Barrett and Jalen Brunson.
And if the ball moves far enough, they’re out of position.
There’s also the issue of tired legs in the midst of a grueling schedule over the last eight games, with the Knicks making two road trips during that stretch and going 3-5.
“The guys look mentally tired,” said one scout.
Luckily, on that last note, there is an imminent solution. The Knicks have three days off before Monday’s upcoming home game against the Rockets.
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Thibodeau downplayed Randle’s latest outburst, which turned into a scathing moment directed at a teammate, likening it to a personality quirk.
“Idiosyncrasy is allowed, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of winning,” Thibodeau explained to reporters. “Nothing can stand in the way of winning.”
For years, Thibodeau has danced around Randle’s penchant for tantrums, often refusing to address it as anything more than a team-based generality. A ‘we’ instead of ‘he’.
“It’s a long season,” Thibodeau added of Randle’s outburst after the Knicks lost their third straight Thursday to the Magic. “We have to do better.”
In the latest incident, Randle began arguing with a referee. He was persistent and caught a technique for the third game in a row, resulting in at least semi-consequence in a game decided in the final minutes.
After Randle was ejected from a game for scolding a referee in December, Thibodeau commented that his teammates need to do a better job of controlling their best player. But when Immanuel Quickley tried it Thursday night in Orlando, Randle quickly snapped at the guard.
Tantrums were a major problem for Randle last season. Despite vowing to bring a cooler mind to this campaign, he hasn’t stopped. If anything, he has gotten worse as the season has gone on.