Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau uncomfortable resting starters late in blowouts


Tom Thibodeau didn’t say a word to Julius Randle or Jalen Brunson — or anyone for that matter.

His Knicks were up big on Sunday — a 21-point advantage with 1:20 remaining in an eventual 129-107 victory over the Charlotte Hornets, their third in a row — with a back-to-back looming against the Boston Celtics on Monday.

Thibodeau pulled Randle, Brunson and Mitchell Robinson from the game. As the lead ballooned, the three expected to play closing minutes in the fourth quarter.

A Thibs specialty.

Only four days earlier, the Knicks led the San Antonio Spurs by 30 with three minutes to go in the third quarter, and he played his starters until the 1:28 mark of the fourth quarter when no run imaginable could have powered the opponent back to victory.

Two nights before that, Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue waved the white flag and sent James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook to the bench trailing the Knicks by 16 at the 4:25 mark of the fourth quarter.

Thibodeau played his starters for the rest of the period. The Knicks went on to win by 14.

Thibodeau has his reasons, reasons he explained after sitting the trio of Randle, Brunson and Robinson the entire fourth quarter, then leaving RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, Josh Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein on the floor for extended garbage time minutes.

Thibodeau subbed Grimes in for Barrett at the 6:59 mark of the fourth, subbed Hartenstein out for Jericho Sims 27 seconds later, then Miles McBride for Hart and DaQuan Jeffries for Quickley with just over three minutes left.

The odd man out, Donte DiVincenzo played the entire fourth quarter.

The rationale has its roots during earlier stints of Thibodeau’s coaching career.

He was a member of the Houston Rockets’ coaching staff on Dec. 9, 2004, the night Tracy McGrady went nuclear and scored 13 points in 33 seconds to power a remarkable Rockets fourth-quarter comeback over the San Antonio Spurs.

“He’s got a lotta trauma man,” Randle joked after sitting the fourth quarter. “He’s gotta work on that. He’s gotta work on that.”

Thibodeau said he can’t even relax when his team’s up big in the fourth quarter and he’s pulled his starters from the game. He wants his players to put everything they have into each and every play, each and every day, and he’s setting the tone on the sidelines — even if he’s got McGrady PTSD.

“In this league, no lead is safe,” Thibodeau said. “I’ve seen it all. 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.”

Brunson and Randle seldom experience rest the way they were spectators for the fourth quarter on Sunday. The quarter off came as a surprise for the two stars who expect to carry heavy minutes burdens this season.

“No he never tells me bro,” Randle said. “Mentally, I was ready [to go back in]. If they had one run, we was going back in for sure.”

“I thought I was going back in,” Brunson added. The Knicks floor general isn’t sure there’s a lead big enough for Thibodeau to feel comfortable pulling his starters for good: “Always got to assume [you’re going back in],” he added. “Always assume.”

With the second leg of a back-to-back on the road against the championship-contending Boston Celtics on Monday, Thibodeau hoped there would be an opportunity to sit his stars on Sunday.

“You never know how the game will unfold, and we were fortunate that it did [give our stars some rest],” he said. “And then the fact the bench is playing as well as they are, and our depth is really good. So finding that balance where the starters finding get that rhythm. But you got to play well. You got to make sure you’re doing all the things necessary to improve and win. So that’s where we were. I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”

Brunson is happy he got a chance to rest — but he says he stayed locked in until the end of the game. Thibs would approve.

“Let’s be honest. Whenever we can win like that it’s definitely a good feeling,” he said. “I try not to check out at any point in the game. It is what it is.”

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