The game was practically over as the New York Knicks were up by 11 with 23 seconds to go. But Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau was still in a competitive and combative mood. He argued with the referee on what he felt was a non-call after a defender charged at his rookie guard, Miles McBride, that led to a turnover.
It was a recurring scene on an October night that had the intensity of June.
“Everyone has to be themselves. I’m not saying my way is for everyone. I know my way is for me, and everything matters to me,” said Thibodeau, explaining his serious approach to a preseason game that holds no bearing in the standing.
In the opening half, the Knicks were uncharacteristic and erratic, where an injury-plagued and a young Detroit Pistons team led by as many as eight points. They were a step slow against the Pistons, which played like a well-oiled machine despite missing eight players, including top overall pick Cade Cunningham (right ankle) and their top sophomores Saddiq Bey (left ankle) and Killian Hayes (concussion).
The Knicks had to dig deep and needed a big second half from Julius Randle to rally past the Pistons, 108-100, Wednesday night in the Garden and stay unbeaten in preseason.
They improved to 3-0 and 6-1 overall under Thibodeau in meaningless games (dating back to last year’s preseason) that mean everything to him.
“For us, we’re an organization that’s building right now. We want to get established. Our fight is continuing every day. And I love the fight in our guys,” Thibodeau said.
When push came to shove, the Knicks turned to their bread and butter that fueled their stunning fourth seed finish in the East last season — Randle and their defense.
Randle started slow after skipping Saturday’s win in Washington to attend to his wife Kendra, who delivered their second child last Friday. But he found his rhythm in the second half, leading the Knicks’ comeback.
The 26-year old forward was unstoppable in the third quarter, unloading 16 of his team’s 30 points. Randle drilled in three straight three-pointers during a torrid stretch that enabled them to grab the lead. A 10-0 run to end the quarter turned a 56-52 halftime deficit into an 82-77 Knicks lead.
Their defense roared back to life in the second half and forced the Pistons to 38.6 percent shooting.
Matched up against Jerami Grant, the Pistons’ go-to guy that he beat for the Most Improved Player award, Randle flashed his All-Star and All-NBA form, finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists in 34 minutes. Grant led the Pistons with 18 points and four rebounds in 31 minutes.
“Every game is gearing towards the real thing, so that’s what it’s about,” said Randle, who didn’t mind the big minutes in the preseason, whereas around the league, the starters are either getting rested or playing token minutes.
“Actually, I’m happy we had a game like this where we weren’t shooting well and weren’t in a great rhythm and had to figure it out. So it’s a good test for us mentally to get ready for the season.”
The Pistons gave them everything they got. But no offense to Detroit, this game was supposed to be a walk in Madison Square Park. In their first two preseason games, New York won by an average margin of 19.5 points.
After throwing up 37 and 52 three-point attempts in their first two preseason wins, the Knicks were held down to 33 but still made 13 of them for still a respectable 39.4 percent clip.
Taj Gibson even hit one as he turned back the clock in a vintage performance. Gibson exploded for 21 points in his third straight start and came one rebound shy of a double-double. When asked where he found the fountain of youth, the 36-year old Brooklyn native answered the question with a real New Yorker sense of humor.
“I guess it’s the New York’s Bodega’s bacon egg and cheese,” said a smiling Gibson referring to the menu staple of the small-owned, operated convenience stores in every corner of New York.
Gibson and his forever teammate Derrick Rose were the only bright spots in the Knicks’ sluggish first half.
Rose, who started for Kemba Walker (rest), scored 12 of his 14 points in the opening half. The former MVP added five assists and two steals in 30 minutes.
Veteran guard Alec Burks was the only New York reserve in double figures with 12 points.
In the second half, Thibodeau yanked rookie Jericho Sims in favor of undrafted Aamir Simms, who is vying for a two-way spot with the team.
Simms made a good account of himself, providing solid interior defense while contributing two points and four rebounds in 12 minutes. Sims, the 58th overall pick, was scoreless in six minutes.
Playing time for the two rookie big men and even Gibson would become scarce once Mitchell Robinson (broken foot) and Nerlens Noel (sore knee) return to the lineup, which could come as early as Friday’s preseason finale.
“At halftime, right before [Thibodeau] walked in, I was telling the young guys [whenever they miss a play] ‘do not look over to the sideline.’ Like if you look at him, it’s going to f–k up your game,” said Rose as the media room burst into laughter. “So do not look at him. Just raise your hand, everybody knows you messed up, you made a mistake, and just keep it going, and gotta give that same effort throughout the entire game.”
“When I was younger, I used to look over to the sideline a lot, and you feel his emotions, which is kinda strange, bro. I thought, ‘wow’ then I just raise my hand,” said Rose cracking a smile, “and put my head down. But even then, he’s a winner. So you can express yourself — how you want to — as a man. You could be vocal with him, yell, but right after that, you got to get right back on track to understand that the goal is to win the game, and that’s something Thibs is great at.”
Rose, who has become immune to Thibodeau’s outbursts, said that it’s just part of his competitive nature. And after each game, it’s like nothing happened, like his long-time coach is suffering from amnesia.
Thibodeau was yelling at his players, challenging calls, coaching them hard in every possession while completely ignoring the scoreboard. Preseason games may not count, but Thibodeau views them as opportunities to get better, which is what truly matters.
Meaningless games in early October is Thibodeau’s final test run before unveiling his refurbished toy, reloaded with new offensive weapons, that he hopes would work and grind its way to perfection and finally outrace the competition.
“We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’re ready,” Thibodeau said. “Being honest with ourselves, looking at the film, understanding why we either won or why we’ve lost. And to focus on that improvement is critical each day.”
At the end of his post-game presser, Thibodeau cracked a joke: “I’m just a laidback dude.”
But during the final seconds of an impending victory in a meaningless game that matters to him, Thibodeau was in all his glory with his hands up in the air and his head shaking.
“Are you all surprised? Nothing’s going to change, bro,” Rose said. “If you’re a winner, you can respect that all the way through.”
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