The Knicks rank third in defensive efficiency, which means a Tom Thibodeau-coached team is near the top of the NBA's defensive ratings.
That wasn't a surprise when Thibodeau was an assistant with the Celtics nor when he was coach of the Bulls, as Thibodeau built his reputation in the league as a defensive mastermind.
His stint with the Wolves is the blip on that radar, as the Wolves never finished higher than 24th in defensive efficiency in any season Thibodeau coached.
Knicks guard Derrick Rose, who was in Minnesota for part of Thibodeau's reign, was asked what he thought the difference was in Minnesota compared to other stops in Thibodeau's career. Rose confessed it was hard for him to remember his time in Minnesota, which amounted to a little over a calendar year. But he said given that Thibodeau hasn't changed, the personnel running his schemes had to have been responsible for those struggles.
"It'd have to be personnel," Rose said. "His terminology is still the same. I think his approach is still the same. I think it was just personnel to be honest."
When asked what he thought the difference was in Minnesota, Thibodeau focused on all the things that went right with the team his second year immediately following the Jimmy Butler trade.
"You look at your team and what you feel the strengths and weaknesses are, and you try to cover up whatever weaknesses you have," Thibodeau said. "I was proud of where we were. We were a terrific offensive team, and many people didn't think we would be that, and we were a top-five team in offense."
Thibodeau did heap praise on the work ethic of some of the Knicks' younger players as a reason for their surprising success in the first half of this season.
"One of the things that we wanted to do is to pick guys who are gym rats, that would help us build our culture, and we feel fortunate that we were able to do that," Thibodeau said. "So the professionalism of the veterans has been terrific, and I love our young guys. Our young guys are hungry, they're in all the time, they can't get enough, they're students of the game, and that's what we need."
Thibodeau also had some compliments for one of his former players on the Wolves, Karl-Anthony Towns, and said he felt for Towns given the battles in his family with coronavirus.
"He's a terrific player," Thibodeau said. "He's gone through a lot of adversity, and obviously, you care about him as a person first, and his family — his dad, his sister and all the things he's gone through — but in terms of basketball, when he's healthy, he's one of the best players in the league. It's been a little unfortunate in terms of his injuries over the last couple years, but he's been a terrific talent."
Saunders appreciates Thibs
Wolves coach Ryan Saunders was an assistant for Thibodeau and has kept in touch. Recently, Saunders said he texted Thibodeau a photo of his young son looking to shoot a basketball. Saunders added he's appreciative of what Thibodeau taught him in their years working together.
"He's helped me a lot in my career. He taught me a lot about professionalism. He taught me a lot about approach," Saunders said. "He was ... an even bigger part of my life during tough times, as my dad had passed."
Asked what it was like to coach against him, Saunders said: "Once you get into the game, you really just focus on the task at hand. I know Coach Thibs would say the same thing."
Layman bides his time
Before Friday, Jake Layman had recorded five consecutive "did not plays" in his game log. But Saunders turned back to him against the Raptors and Layman logged 13 minutes and scored eight points.
It's not the first time this season Layman found himself out of the rotation then back in. He has taken it in stride.
"There were also other guys who were playing really well and Coach had a tough decision to make with that and that's what he chose," Layman said. "That doesn't make me discouraged or anything. I'm always going to stay ready."