Outside the Wolves locker room at Madison Square Garden somebody put up a picture. With the caption “Welcome back!’’ there were pictures of Wolves GM Scott Layden, coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau, current Wolves big man Cole Aldrich and assistant coach Rick Brunson during their time with the New York Knicks.
All of them looked a lot younger.
Layden spent four-plus years with the Knicks, first as general manager then as team president. Thibodeau was an assistant coach with the Knicks for seven years starting with the 1996-97 season. Both Aldrich and Brunson played here.
Thibodeau talked at length about his time with the Knicks after morning shootaround today.
“That’s a long time ago,” he said. “It was a great time because of what the league was like at that time, too. We had a really good team. We got the finals, and unfortunately Patrick Ewing was hurt in the finals, so he didn’t play. Larry Johnson had a sprained knee. But I felt the Knicks had a chance to win the championship. That was in 1999. And then 1996 might have been our best team.’’
That 1996-97 team met the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals, where the infamous brawl broke out near the end of Game 5. As a result, several Knicks players were suspended. Charlie Ward, Allan Houston and Ewing were suspended for Game 6. Larry Johnson and John Starks for Game 7. The Knicks, up 3-2 after five games, lost each of the final two games of the series.
“It was a great time,” Thibodeau. “Miami had a great team during that time. Chicago, obviously, had a great team. Indiana had a great team. So the games, every night you were going to be tested. And that atmosphere. In New York basketball is so important, it make it really enjoyable. And we had great guys, like Ewing, Johnson, Houston, Starks, Ward. Starks, [Charles] Oakley, Buck Williams. Tough, tough guys and they played for each other. We fell short in the end. I wish we could have had a shot at it with everyone healthy.’’
The Garden is special for Aldrich, too, who spent two seasons with the Knicks starting in 2013. “After a while you fall in love with the city,’’ he said. “I loved playing here. I loved walking into the Garden every day, hearing the cheers, hearing the boos, hearing the people yell at you and cheer for you. All within 2 minutes.’’
Rookie Kris Dunn played here often while at Providence; the Big East Conference tournament was held at the Garden. His strongest memory was the 2015 tournament when Providence pushed fourth-ranked Villanova to the wire before losing late on two free throws. Dunn had 22 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and two steals in that game. “We were down,’’ he said. “I started to get my groove, got us back and on the last play the called a foul on us.’’
Dunn will have a large group of friends and family here from Connecticut. “This is a great place and I love playing here,’’ he said.
Here are some other notes from this morning:
--Playing the Knicks for the second time in three nights, both teams will know what to expect. But the Wolves are taking some solace from the way they finished Wednesday’s loss, storming back from 17 down in the fourth quarter to tie the game twice in the final minute before losing.
“Defensively we all played together,’’ Andrew Wiggins said. “We protected the paint, we played hard, we played comeback basketball. Now we need a full 48 minutes of it.’’
Said Thibodeau: “When we have good hand activity and we’re challenging shots correctly, good things can happen. But we have to be more consistent. You have to be able to do it for 48 minutes. That’s what we’re striving for. We’re not there yet.’’
--There was no media access for the Knicks this morning; that will come before the game, when we’ll learn the availability of Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee, both of whom are dealing with twisted ankles.
--Brandon Rush’s sore big toe might keep him out of another game. We’ll know more after he warms up pre-game.