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Sometimes success in life is about showing up to work every day with a gray lunch pail, staying healthy and getting dirty.
Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks hit the one-third mark of the 72-game NBA season with Saturday’s grinding 110-99 matinee triumph over the Trail Blazers at the Garden. After 24 games, the Knicks have indeed shown up to work every game, stayed healthy, stayed grounded.
Amid this crazy COVID-19 season, amid an era in which load management is chic and the stars complain about competing in an All-Star Game, the Knicks are grinding forward — their key guys having not missed a single game.
The Knicks are the NBA’s most durable club — if not the most talented or flashy.
Four of the Knicks’ starters — Elfrid Payton, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson — have played all 24 games. Robinson has played through multiple injuries.
“We’re able to continue to work hard every day and learn each other more and more and it’s not something you can take for granted,’’ Barrett said. “We’re very appreciative of it and hope it continues.’’
The Knicks, tested every day, have had no COVID-19 positives, no contract-tracing issues and no canceled games.
There are no load management days for Captain Randle, who plowed on in an All-Star caliber season with a 22-point, 11-rebound outing on Saturday. He snatched key rebounds late (all the Knicks rebounded like kings), when the Blazers went cold, missing their final six attempts from 3-point range. Portland, which had been averaging 115 points, was held under 100 points by the down-and-dirty Knicks.
They have a coach in Tom Thibodeau who has stuck with his convictions and stayed with the same starting lineup. It’s paying off now.
Yes, starting point guard Elfrid Payton more than held his own against Damian Lillard on Saturday.
The result of all this stability and durability is an 11-13 record and sixth place in the Eastern Conference, after the Knicks gained payback from their loss in Portland last month.
“I don’t want us to feel too good about where we are, because right now there’s a long way to go,’’ Thibodeau said. “I want us to feel good about the way we’re approaching things.’’
When you consider the recent history — a history of losing that Carmelo Anthony was all too much a part of — it is golden start. Anthony barely showed up Saturday in his Blazers’ uniform, shooting 1-for-8 while committing three fouls in 16 minutes, and even had a technical.
Last season, the Knicks also played their 24th game against Portland, on the road. David Fizdale had just been fired and interim coach Mike Miller was piloting his first road game. The Knicks were blasted out of the Moda Center by 28 points and fell to 4-20.
That feels like a distant memory to Randle and the five guys in the Knicks’ starting lineup Saturday, all of whom were all on last season’s 21-45 wreckage.
“It’s a lot of fun,’’ Randle said Saturday. “When the only thing that matters is a win, it’s just something about team spirit, our team chemistry. We feel like, if we all come together and put the team first, play for each other, play hard and stick to the great game plan our coaches are giving us, we have a good shot to win every night.’’
Thibodeau has stuck to his instincts with the starters and his decision to bounce young lottery picks Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. from the rotation.
Thibodeau has kept the same defense-oriented lineup in 19 of the 24 games. The only time Thibodeau has deviated is when Reggie Bullock has missed games because of assorted injuries.
Randle, who has never been on a winning team in his six previous seasons, said Thibodeau has played “a huge role’’ in a 11-13 start that includes six wins against clubs that are above .500.
“He keeps us mentally sharp, prepared,’’ Randle said. “He’s obviously great with his game plans but his intensity, his edge that he brings us every single day is second to none. Coach is doing an amazing job. He’s putting us all in great positions on the court. We’re all extremely comfortable with what he’s having us do out there. And he has us all bought, which is something you can’t really ask for more than that.”
Thibodeau has rallied behind Payton despite the social-media cries for popular rookie Immanuel Quickley. Now Payton has weaved two straight games of 20-plus points. Before Saturday’s game, Thibodeau said Payton’s too good a defender not to start.
“The big thing is the defense,’’ Thibodeau said. “That’s the biggest tone-setter for us. The defensive component. That’s his strength and helps his team when he starts on the ball. And to keep us organized offensively and be opportunities with scoring opportunities.”
Even after Quickley burned the Blazers last month for 31 points, Thibodeau kept him on the bench for the entire first quarter Saturday, going the first 12 with Payton. It seemed to be a message, with all the massive hype Quickley is getting. Thibodeau could be seen yelling at Quickley on the sideline. He is still Payton’s backup.
Thibodeau had no qualms about benching veteran Austin Rivers, who has been struggling, in the second half Saturday. Nor did he hesitate to close mostly with Payton in the fourth quarter even though Quickley had racked up 21 fourth-quarter points in the game at Portland. Thibodeau played the hunch and now nobody can complain.
“Nothing is set in stone,’’ Thibodeau said of his consistent starting lineup. “I like the way both groups are playing. Both groups have different strengths and they fit well together.’’
The currently struggling Heat took their lunch pail all the way to the NBA Finals last October and visit the Garden on Sunday. The Knicks surely will be ready to punch the clock again.
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