National Basketball Association
Mind over minutes: Why there is no such thing as garbage time to Tom Thibodeau
National Basketball Association

Mind over minutes: Why there is no such thing as garbage time to Tom Thibodeau

Updated Apr. 19, 2024 3:12 p.m. ET

The game was over. Not officially, but it may as well have been. There were less than 10 seconds remaining and the Madison Square Garden scoreboard read 129-105, with the New York Knicks ahead. 

The Charlotte Hornets had the ball. Nick Smith Jr. misfired on a 3-pointer. The ball caromed past Miles McBride, the Knicks' third-year guard who at the time was a little-used reserve. It was picked up by Hornets guard Amari Bailey, who McBride allowed to dribble back to the 3-point arc. Bailey drilled a jumper as time expired

On the court, the Knicks celebrated the November victory, their third straight. But back in the locker room, head coach Tom Thibodeau had something else on his mind. He was angry about the last possession, and let McBride know. 

"Shots like those," he told him, "can get guys going for the next game." 


It didn't matter that the Knicks wouldn't see the Hornets again for another six days. Or that Bailey, who to that point had played just three minutes all season, probably wouldn't be in the rotation when they did. To Thibodeau, every moment of every minute of every game carries the same weight. 

"He's always about playing for 48 minutes," McBride said. "And when he says something he means it. So if he says we're playing 48 minutes then we're playing 48 minutes."

Ryan Arcidiacono, a guard who spent parts of the previous two seasons with the Knicks, said he was once dressed down by Thibodeau late in a blowout win for not knowing the alignment on a sideline out of bounds play. Starting wing Josh Hart has joked after games about seeing a lopsided score and wondering why he was still on the court. TV cameras recently caught Thibodeau, in his booming and raspy voice, chastising his players for their lack of effort — in a game where they led by 16 with just over a minute remaining.  

 To some, this approach is misguided, especially in the age of load management, where rest has been prioritized. But, his current and former players say, it's his refusal to relent, his attention to even the most miniscule of details, his insistence that, as he often tells his players, "the magic is in the work," which elevates him and his teams. 

This season's Knicks were without their second-best player (Julius Randle) for half the season. Their starting center missed 61 games. Their second-most used starting lineup was one featuring three players who were supposed to be reserves (Hart, Isaiah Hartenstein and Precious Achiuwa). Yet they still finished with 50 wins and the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. A franchise famous for its futility has now made the playoffs in three out of four seasons.

That this has happened under Thibodeau is no coincidence. To watch the Knicks play basketball is to watch a team fully adapt to the mentality of its head coach. They grind out wins. They don't make excuses. They don't punt games even if doing so would result in more favorable playoff matchups. 

But nothing better encapsulates Thibodeau's approach than how he approaches blowouts.

"I've never seen someone who can be on 24/7 like that," Hartenstein said. "I think that's what makes him great."

To hear Thibodeau tell it, this fear of blowing leads dates back to Dec. 9, 2004. On that night, Tracy McGrady single-handedly outscored the San Antonio Spurs 13-4 in the game's final 35 seconds, lifting his Houston Rockets to a miraculous 81-80 win. 

Thibodeau was in the building for that performance. He was an assistant coach. He's often referred back to the game since then. 

"No lead is safe," Thibodeau told reporters in November when asked why he hesitates to pull players late in blowout wins. "I've seen 13 points in 35 seconds. So people will tell you, 'Ah, he needs to get the starters out of there.' Yeah? Well, I know what experience tells me."

It's not surprising to hear that a bad loss would impact the way a coach approaches his job. What makes Thibodeau different is that he didn't lose that night. He was working for the Rockets back then. The game that's scarred him for life was one he won. 

"Thibs has some trauma he has to deal with," Hart said.  

A little over five years after that loss, the Chicago Bulls gave Thibodeau his first NBA head coaching job. His impact was immediate, with the team transforming from a 41-win one into a 62-win unit. In five seasons, Thibodeau's Bulls won nearly 65% of their games. They made the playoffs every year. 

Part of that was because Thibodeau did everything he could to make sure that no leads were blown. He told colleagues he wouldn't insert players who he didn't trust, no matter what the score. When challenged, he'd refer back to the McGrady game. If the lead was 17 when his reserves entered and 15 when the game's final buzzer sounded, he'd chew that unit out. 

Staffers noticed that he wouldn't sit unless the team led by more than 30. When it did, he'd still berate players for not getting back on defense.

"I got to the point where he's cursing me out and I just got used to it," said Taj Gibson, who played for Thibodeau in both Chicago and New York. 

In those rare games where he did pull the starters, Thibodeau would swap out his usual offensive playbook for the flex offense, a motion-heavy, low-risk approach favored by high school coaches. "It's not a great offense and doesn't really work in the NBA," said Brian Scalabrine, a former NBA player and reserve on those teams. "But it's good for a bench group because it settles you in." 

On the surface, this seems like the sort of behavior that could cause a mutiny. After all, NBA reserves are still NBA-caliber players. They'd have a right to be offended by this lack of trust. 

"Sometimes I'd be put in and when walking up I'd be like, ‘What, you think I'm going to blow an 11-point lead,'" Scalabrine said. 

Thibodeau hasn't had that problem. For one, he's always held himself to the same standard. "You can come by the facility at 11 at night and you'll see the light on in his office," Hartenstein said. 

He also treats the players like adults. "After road wins he'll be like, ‘I don't care what you do, you guys played hard, just no all-nighers and don't get arrested,'" Gibson said. 

Most of all, he coaches his bench with the same vigor as his stars—as long as he believes they're putting in the work. "He just wants the best for you," Gibson said. 

Thibodeau's approach, his reserves realize, is a compliment. It's not that he doesn't trust them—it's that he holds them to the same standards as his starters. "I've had a lot of good coaches," Scalabrine said. "But I've never been around someone who's changed me as much as him. Being around him just makes you realize how the details matter."

That realization, Scalabrine and others said, leads to in-season growth for everyone willing to buy in. Thibodeau's rosters are usually stocked with players who do. And so it makes sense that the Knicks have won nearly 61% of their post-All-Star break games since he took over. And that  his teams, dating back to his Chicago days when All-Stars like Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Loul Deng were dealing with injuries, have often won games despite starters missing chunks of time. 

Just look at McBride. He began the season as a bench warmer, but Thibodeau and the Knicks saw something more. So he'd use blowouts as an opportunity to push him. "During my time," Arcidiacono said, "Thibs was coaching in those situations to get [McBride] to learn." That meant running plays for him. It also meant scolding him for low-effort, even in the final seconds of blowouts. 

Little by little, McBride gained Thibodeau's trust. He played 37 or more minutes in 10 straight games starting in mid-March, including all 48 minutes of a late-season win over the Brooklyn Nets. McBride finished that game with 26 points. After the victory, he was asked by reporters if at any point he wanted a sub. 

"I tried not to look over [at the sidelines]," he said, no doubt making his coach proud. "I wanted to stay in." 

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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