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Professor Thibs’ class is in session. The only assignment is beating the Hawks.
Tom Thibodeau’s extensive preparation included issuing two strategy guides to his players for memorization, reiterating the coach’s Belichick-ian reputation as the Knicks had nearly a week to prepare for Game 1.
Derrick Rose, who has played for Tom Thibodeau on three different teams spanning eight seasons, said the coach is similarly committed to planning as a decade ago but has altered the homework.
“Only thing that’s changed is the playbook. The books that we get,” Rose said. “They don’t look like binders anymore. They look like regular schoolbooks.
“You used to have like binders for the plays when we were in Chicago. But this year he gave us two books, one more detailed than the other.”
Thibodeau joked that the addition was “just to keep his attention,” but the setup — which included breaking out in smaller groups — had Immanuel Quickley evoking memories of the University of Kentucky.
“It’s actually kind of funny, me and [Obi Toppin] were like, ‘It kind of reminds us of school,’” Quickley said. “The day we got into small groups and it was almost like we had class. So we were joking with each other the other day that it was kind of like school all over again.”
Thibodeau’s taskmaster tendencies have been a positive fit with the Knicks and their young try-hards, who bucked the odds to land the fourth seed and the franchise’s first playoff appearance in eight years. Beyond the normal preparation for a long series, Game 1 on Sunday is preceded by six off days to accommodate the NBA’s new play-in tournament.
It’s like preparing for a football game.
“You want them to understand the opponent and know them well,” Thibodeau said. “We watch a lot of film. They have the books. They have to study. You want to combine great concentration and knowledge with maximum effort to put your best foot forward. Hopefully we’ve built the right habits all season long. We want to be playing our best down the stretch. I think we are. But this is a different animal when we get to the playoffs.”
Among the challenges presented by the Hawks — and covered in Thibodeau’s playbook — is keeping Trae Young off the foul line. The point guard led the league in free throws converted this season, escalating his knack for drawing fouls by inviting the contact.
Hawks coach Nate McMillan also set the stage for influencing the officials by publicly stating the league wants New York to advance. McMillan was fined $25,000 and backtracked Friday, but the seed was already planted.
Thibodeau countered by issuing a reminder of the NBA’s decision to suspend five Knicks players in the 1997 playoffs against the Heat. Thibodeau was a Knicks assistant coach at the time.
“Patrick Ewing took a step off the bench, it wiped him out and that was our chance probably for a championship,” Thibodeau said. “I don’t think the league favors us. I think the playoffs heighten everything. You’re fighting the same opponent over and over again. We just want to focus on what we have to do for Game 1.”
And that focus has been very Thibs-ian.
“I believe we have to have another level,” Rose said. “That’s why we’re preparing right now. Proper preparation prevents poor performance. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re preventing that.”