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Mike Lupica: Tom Thibodeau is doing the best work of his career with these Knicks



You know how you’re supposed to do it in New York as a top manager, and that means a top baseball manager or coach? You do it the way Tom Thibodeau has done it with the Knicks, whatever happens to his team the rest of the way.

He has been the coach of the Knicks at the time when they have mattered more than they have in a long time. He has done this kind of work 40 years after he first became a head coach, at his alma mater, Salem State. Thibodeau has moved around a lot since then, been Coach of the Year, gotten knocked down, gotten paid, gotten fired with the Timberwolves when he was running the whole operation.

Finally he ended up at the Garden, where he has done as much to shape the talent in the room and the character of his team as much as anybody else, and that includes the big basketball boss there, Leon Rose. Thibs is 66 now, which is old in a young man’s game. It doesn’t change the fact that he is doing the best work of his career.

Now he and the Knicks are in the barrel against the 76ers, who probably would have gotten the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference that the Knicks themselves ended up with if Joel Embiid hadn’t gotten hurt. And even before the Sixers outlasted the Heat in that terrific play-in game the other night in what looked like a rock fight of a basketball game, Thibodeau was ready for them, one season having just ended and another one about to begin.

“We started putting the framework in and [focusing on] what similarities [the Sixers and Heat] have,” Thibodeau said Wednesday afternoon at the Knicks practice facility. “What are the things we have to take away, or what we should be aware of?”

It is what the best coaches do. They look to take just enough away from the other team to win the game, win the series. Now he is asked to do that with Embiid and Tyrese Maxey at the same time Nick Nurse, who coached the Raptors all the way to the championship once, is looking to do the same with a Knicks team looking to make it to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 24 years.

There is a commonality to the toughness of the two teams, because of the way the 76ers hung in there until Embiid finally came back from his knee injury, and the way the Knicks hung in there after Mitchell Robinson got hurt and after Julius Randle landed wrong on his shoulder that night against the Heat in January and OG Anunoby, who has turned out to be one of the best in-season trades the Knicks have ever made, banged up his elbow before he came back, and has become as crucial to the Knick prospects in the playoffs as Randle would have been.

But the personality of the Knicks starts with their flinty coach, who comes out of the School of Jeff Van Gundy, who was the coach the last time the Knicks did make it to the conference finals, the year after they shocked the world by making it all the way from the No. 8 seed in the East to the NBA Finals. Thibodeau doesn’t back up and they don’t back up. He gets ready for the next game, in his thorough and professional way. He doesn’t make headlines. Again: What he has done is make the Knicks matter again. In the process he has taken his place behind the great Red Holzman and Pat Riley and Van Gundy as the best coaches the Knicks have ever had.

Mike Woodson also did a terrific job here the last time the Knicks won more than 50 games in a season. The Knicks had big ideas in that basketball spring over a decade ago about making it to the finals of the East and getting a shot at LeBron and the Heat, before getting upset by the Pacers. Woody at least made it to the second round, something Thibodeau didn’t do in New York until last season. But Thibodeau has to know that even with Embiid, a former MVP as an opponent, the Knicks are supposed to do a lot more this time than just make it out of the first round.

When the Knicks beat the Bulls last Sunday in overtime despite that a loss might have given them a slightly easier road in the playoffs, here is all Thibodeau said about that:

“Really? I mean, the object is to win. Put everything you have into winning. That’s the bottom line.”

When he got the Knicks job, the Knicks shocked everybody by going 41-31 in a COVID-altered season, and getting the No. 4 seed in the conference before getting bounced by the Hawks, No. 5, in the first round. Then the whole league bounced the Knicks around the next year, and the record went back to 37-45, and the Knicks looked so much like so many losing Knick teams we’d seen before Thibodeau came back to the Garden.

But the Knicks got right back up. They turned the record around last season and still have a right to think they could have beaten the Heat in the second round if Randle had been healthy. Now Jalen Brunson has become one of the stars of the league and the Knicks have played through their injuries and ended up winning 50. Thibodeau’s overall won-loss record in the regular season is now 527-389. It makes him one of the biggest guys in his profession. He just seems bigger in New York right now because of the way things could have gone sideways over the second half because of the injuries, even with the way Brunson has balled.

Thibodeau has gotten all the proper respect for that. Sometimes you think the coach doesn’t get enough, as he continues to hear that he plays his guys too many minutes (somewhat ironic in a season when Donte DiVincenzo didn’t play enough minutes to qualify for Most Improved Player. What he does, in the words of old friend Herm Edwards, is play to win the game. He himself said it last week: “The object is to win.”

Here is something Van Gundy said about his old friend a couple of years ago:

“One of the things I most admire about Tom, is that he knows what not to compromise on, and what to compromise on. People says he’s too rigid. Well, not on the big stuff he’s not…..His teams just constantly reflect a stubborn obstinance to beating themselves. My respect level what he stands for, every single day, is immeasurable.”

For now Tom Thibodeau is the top top-manager in town, in any sport. He’s done this at the Garden, working for James L. Dolann, no easy thing even in the best of times. He’s done it and keeps doing it in New York. You know why? He knows how.

RODGERS IS THE VILLAGE IDIOT, SPORTS GAMBLING A GROWING VIRUS & ALONSO IS BEATING HEART OF METS …

Here is something Aaron Rodgers, who thinks he knows everything about everything, said about Dr. Anthony Fauci last month, when he suggested the U.S. government “created” the AIDS epidemic:

“The blueprint, the game plan, was made in the ’80s. Create a pandemic with a virus that’s going wild. Fauci was given over $350 million to research this, to come up with drugs — new or repurposed — to handle the AIDS pandemic. And all they came up with was AZT … But that was the game plan back then. Create an environment where only one thing works. Back then AZT; now, Remdesivir until we get a vaccine.”

So nothing changes with Rodgers: He has been a genius playing football and the village idiot on so many different subjects you lose count.

And, with more bonehead comments about Dr. Fauci, really does sound like somebody yelling at you as you make your way across Central Park.

Or maybe just the buffet at a psychiatrist’s convention.

Once again you want to ask him how, if he’s on such a warpath with pharmaceutical companies, he keeps cashing all those checks from Mr. Woody Johnson & Johnson.

I love it, no kidding, when people talk about how boring Scottie Scheffler is, even when he’s playing the kind of golf that immortals in that sport play.

They must think that Tiger Woods had more personality than Lee Trevino once did on a golf course when Tiger didn’t have a driver in his hands.

If you think Jontay Porter, formerly of the Raptors, is going to be the last professional athlete to get clipped because of gambling, than you also think that cows can fly.

And if you think our sports leagues can save themselves because of all the monitoring they’re able to do on betting, then see the above sentence.

Sports gambling has become a virus in this country, no matter how many famous athletes sell it to you in commercials or not.

If the Mets keep playing good baseball, don’t forget the rainy day in April when they had been no-hit into the 8th inning and were about to go to 0-6 before Pete Alonso tied the game with a 9th-inning homer and Tyrone Taylor won it later the same inning.

You know what the Polar Bear was in that moment?

What he has been for a while now at Citi Field:

The beating heart of the New York Mets.

What everybody is saying about John Sterling is true since we learned of his retirement:

Baseball summers just aren’t going to sound the same around here.

You are going to love Anthony Horowitz’s new Hawthorne mystery, “Close to Death.”

I heard after the Masters that Greg Norman bought a ticket to watch the tournament.

But there was no ticket he could buy that got him into the Champions Dinner, right?

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