Tom Thibodeau’s biggest criticism is about to be tested with Knicks
19th May 2021

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The Knicks’ 41-31 regular-season record was good for fourth in the East — 12th-best in the NBA. It was a sensational turnaround from a club that amassed 38 wins combined the previous two seasons.

The question is whether 41-31 is indicative of how Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks fare in their first playoffs series since 2013 — a seven-season drought.

Perhaps lowering expectations for his best buddy, former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy says the Hawks are a better team on paper. And he warned the Knicks’ record could be inflated because of the method in which Thibodeau operates during the regular season.

Every game coached by Thibodeau is prepared for like it’s the Super Bowl — whether it’s mid-January in Cleveland or the Eastern Conference Finals in June. Julius Randle has noted that detail on multiple occasions.

It’s not exactly how other NBA coaches do it — not in the load-management era heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Van Gundy told The Post he believes Atlanta should be slightly favored, but added, “I love the perimeter depth and defensive intensity of the Knicks. It should be a great series.”

Van Gundy worked the Knicks-Celtics regular-season finale when Boston was without its top seven players — six being rested for the play-in event.

Across the season, the Knicks encountered teams resting players. In their win over Milwaukee, the Bucks gave a vacation day to four of their five starters, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.

Now everyone’s at full strength and full throttle. Hawks coach Nate McMillan has a week to prepare.

“Atlanta has more talent,” Van Gundy said on Sunday’s broadcast. “The Knicks defensively are really good. They play their best players a lot of minutes. Their guys play. The Knicks don’t take nights off. In the playoffs, that all goes away. Everybody is locked in and everybody plays. There’s no load management. It will be interesting to see if the Knicks have enough in a playoff scenario to hold up.”

As usual, Van Gundy hit a home run with his sentiment. And it’s not a knock on Thibodeau. He doesn’t know any other way but to play to win that night, to prepare as if it’s the ultimate game.

In Chicago, Thibodeau was knocked by the media for burning his clubs out in the regular season. He’s never made the NBA Finals as a head coach.

Thibodeau’s all-time playoff record is 24-32 (.429). That pales in comparison to his all-time regular-season record of 393-277 (.587).

In his five seasons in Chicago, Thibodeau was knocked out in the first round twice. But did make the Eastern Conference Finals in his first season with the Bulls in 2010-11, when he posted a 62-win campaign and won NBA Coach of the Year.

Thibodeau has never gotten that far again — his last playoff appearance was in 2018 with Minnesota, losing 4-1 in the first round to Houston after breaking the Wolves’ 14-year playoff drought.

Derrick Rose, on his side in Chicago, Minnesota and now here, was hurt for some of those Bulls postseasons. Segments of the Chicago media unfairly blamed Thibodeau for Rose’s knee injuries because of overwork, while Rose has repeatedly absolved Thibodeau.

Randle and RJ Barrett, the Knicks’ two best players, rank Nos. 1 and 2 in most minutes played in the NBA this season. Randle led the league with 2,629. Barrett was second with 2,511.

Randle missed just one game. Barrett, 20, played in all 72 games — one of only five starters in the league to do so. They’ve been iron men.

The Knicks’ durability — and depth — was the key to 41-31. The Knicks’ only injury pitfall was the broken hand and broken foot for starting center Mitchell Robinson. The gritty center tandem of Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson filled in bravely — and they’ve added a depth piece in shot-blocker Norvel Pelle.

As such, Thibodeau could stick with the same starting four-man nucleus he rode the entire season in Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock, Barrett and Randle — all players returning from last season’s 21-45 disgrace.

The Knicks will look to prove none of this was a pandemic mirage and attempt to become the toughest out in the East. The pandemic conditions worked in their favor — hermetically sealed from the usual distractions of playing in big, bad New York.

There were no player appearances in Manhattan — or nightlife. There was no going out on the road, instead they were stuck in the hotel together. There was none of the normal large throng of New York media in the locker room this season, allowing this club to be as close-knit as any Knicks team in history.

In fact, media access was extremely limited with reporters not having access to any of the group of players who could have groused about their roles (Kevin Knox, the departed Austin Rivers, Frank Ntilikina, Payton).

According to sources, Knicks senior vice president William Wesley believes the New York media’s intrusion played a role in their troubles in past years. Indeed, the Zoom era suited James Dolan’s Knicks well.

Additionally, Barrett raised a long-standing point that might have helped them. He said not having fans at the Garden would work in their favor because historically visiting players rise up on Broadway to perform before a jam-packed arena.

The Knicks crafted a brilliant 25-11 home record — the final 22 games at 10 percent capacity (1,980). Now the playoffs begin Sunday at the World’s Most Famous Arena. Thanks to Gov. Cuomo, the Garden will fill up to about 13,000 fans.

Will the pandemic regular-season bubble burst?

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