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Tom Thibodeau has never been better than this



Tom Thibodeau has already got a matching set of Coach of the Year trophies. He won for the first time in 2011, when he inherited a 41-41 team in Chicago and immediately took it to 62 wins and a spot in the conference finals. He won the second time in 2021, when he took over a 21-45 Knicks team and coaxed it to a 41-31 record and a stunning 4-seed in the East.

In both instances, he fulfilled the easiest requirement necessary for winning that award, which is to say: drag a team with a recent history of hopelessness directly toward prominence. In that sense, three presumptive favorites to win this year’s award — Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault, Minnesota’s Chris Finch, Orlando’s Jamahl Mosley — are perfect candidates.

So is Boston’s Joe Mazzulla, who has the the league’s most talented team and is mostly being mentioned because he is significantly more adept at the job in Year 2 than he was as a rookie last season. If there was a “Most Improved Coach,” Mazzulla would win that one in a walk.

So Thibodeau isn’t likely to add a third piece of hardware to his collection because the Knicks were expected to be very good this year and they’ve mostly been very good. That award isn’t usually presented to coaches who merely match expectations — even though, in a grand irony, the award is named for Red Auerbach, and Auerbach’s greatest skill was essentially doing that: making sure the nine Celtics teams he coached to championships maintained excellence. Red did a lot of things; he never had to go worst-to-first.

Tom Thibodeau may not get a third Coach of the Year award, despite the Knicks weathering a barrage of injuries. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Thibodeau is around a 1,000-to-1 shot to win this year.

He won’t. He likely won’t even finish top five.

And that’s fine, and probably fine with him, too, since he is a vocal champion of other coaches and takes great satisfaction in seeing other coaches succeed and be recognized.

Knicks Head Coach Tom Thibodeau reacts on the baseline during the fourth quarter.
Thibodeau has his squad positioned to make a playoff run. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

But this is also true:

This has been the best job, day-to-day, that Thibodeau has ever done in his career. And that’s saying something. The easy way to underline this is simply to see how the Knicks have survived since December when Mitch Robinson went down, and into January when Julius Randle and OG Anunoby joined him on the injured list.

Somehow missing 60 percent of his starting lineup most nights since late January, the Knicks are still the 4-seed. Somehow the Knicks reached 40 wins in 67 games, the fastest they’ve done that since 2013, second-fastest since ’01. But even Thibodeau aggressively diminishes his hand in that, pointing instead to his team’s absolute belief in Next Man Up.

“When opportunities are there for you, you have to seize them,” he said a few weeks ago. “And we have guys who do that.”

It’s not just plug-and-play, though. Wounded teams often find it difficult to summon the means to compete. At the risk of piling on the Nets, just look at what’s happened in Brooklyn whenever adversity has struck this year. They don’t just lose, they surrender. And, in truth, that’s more the norm than the exception across the league.

The Knicks had one of those games as recently as March 10 when they were humiliated at the Garden by the Sixers, 79-73. Across all 48 minutes that night, it felt like the Knicks had simply succumbed to the weight of absences still afflicting them. Maybe folks were looking for Thibs to air out the team afterward. He didn’t. He was oddly philosophical.

“You aren’t going to win a lot of games,” he said, “when you play as poorly as that.”

The Knicks are 4-0 since, including a remarkable 3-0 start to their final West Coast swing of the year, with a house-money game in Denver looming Thursday night. This isn’t Thibodeau’s first rodeo. He knows the quirks of the NBA marathon better than anyone, figures if he does his job right, his team can shake off the miserable nights and not get too carried away by the magical ones.

“It starts at the top,” Deuce McBride said late Monday after Thibodeau played a hunch and started him against the Warriors in San Francisco and McBride delivered a career-high 29 points while playing terrific defense when it was his turn to guard Steph Curry. “It starts with Coach Thibs, and the way he gets us ready every day.”

It won’t be enough to add a third piece to his shelf when the Auerbach Trophy is announced during the playoffs, but because Thibodeau has done the job he’s done, there’s a good chance neither he nor anyone else will even notice. Because the Knicks may well be playing an important basketball game that night.

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