If one were to travel back in time and tell an NBA fan from 2011 that in ten years, a Tom Thibodeau-coached team led by an outstanding performance from Derrick Rose would beat a title contender in a game that carried huge playoff implications for both squads, the fan’s reaction (after the initial shock of meeting someone from the future, and all the questions about teleportation and the Breaking Bad finale were satisfied) would probably be along the lines of “Wow, D-Rose and Thibs just continued to dominate the league for a decade, huh?”
“You poor 2011 NBA fan,” the time traveler would reply (he never bothered to learn the fan’s name). “If you only knew the Hell those two have been through.”
It’s a fair assumption for the fan to make. At the end of the 2010-11 season, Rose was awarded league MVP (the youngest to ever win it at age 22), Thibodeau was deemed Coach of the Year, and the Chicago Bulls won 62 games, making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before running into LeBron James’ Miami Heat. They looked as though they’d be a title contender for years to come, with youth on their side and a defensive-minded culture that would sustain.
But the following season, Rose tore the ACL in his left knee during the Bulls’ first game of the 2012 playoffs. He missed the entire 2012-13 season during his recovery. He then went on to tear the meniscus in his right knee six games into the 2013-14 season, and was out for the rest of that year.
And just like that, a juggernaut of a team was erased. The Bulls would go onto make noise in the postseason for a better part of the decade, led by Jimmy Butler and a still halfway-decent Rose (when he was healthy), but eventually, Rose was traded, Thibodeau was fired, and the Bulls have been cannon fodder for the Eastern Conference ever since.
Flash forward to present day, and Thibodeau is once again in the Coach of the Year race. He’s turned a lowly Knicks squad into a defensive tank of a team, and has redeemed himself after a shaky and dramatic stint as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ head coach. And wouldn’t you know it, Rose is on this Knicks team. He’s not the player he once was, but he’s maximized his remaining athletic ability and elongated his career by improving his jump shot. He’s embraced the role of Sixth Man, acting as a spark plug for a team that is in need of offense off the bench.
Rose and Thibodeau’s latest victim was the LA Clippers, who fell to the Knicks 106-100 on Sunday.
The Knicks’ no. 4-ranked defense was on full display, limiting the Clippers’ no. 2-ranked offense to just 43% shooting. While the Clippers did an excellent job of holding All-Star Julius Randle to just 14 points on 7-19 shooting, they allowed Rose to do a bit of time-traveling himself—flashing back to his prime days and dropping a season-high 25 points on 11-17 shooting.
The Clippers elected to go with a drop coverage of Rose in pick-and-roll action, not fearing his three-point shot (though he was 2-3 from downtown on Sunday, and is shooting 39% from deep this season), but this gave Rose room to operate in the midrange, where he was deadly. Rose hit nine of his first 10 shots in the first half, most of which came off of floaters in the key. Clippers fans remember dealing with Knick floaters all too well, as rookie Immanuel Quickley torched LA with the same shot in their first matchup with New York this season.
The Clippers kept the game close throughout, trailing by just six points with a bit over four minutes remaining in the game. However, Randle, largely guarded by an All-Defense level threat in Paul George, hit the Knicks’ next three baskets after struggling all night. The Clippers were forced to play the foul game, and although Kawhi Leonard scored eight points in the final 50 seconds, the run was too late, and the Knicks walked away with the victory.
It’s uplifting to see Rose and Thibodeau back together and making noise in the league once again. Though they’ll likely never return to their greatest heights, they are currently the no. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, and will present a problem to whichever contender they match up with should they advance past the first round. The identity that Thibodeau established and Rose flourished under is alive and well in New York, against all odds.
The Stars Struggle
A stat that encapsulates just how physical the Knicks’ defense was: Sunday night marked the first game all season that both George and Kawhi Leonard were held to just 40% shooting or lower (George went 8-20, Leonard 9-26). While the Knicks have no single defender that anchors their defense (though Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson both did a solid job protecting the rim), they have a few lengthy wings that Thibodeau has gotten to buy in effort-wise. Former Clipper Reggie Bullock did an excellent job getting under Leonard’s skin and making him work for his mid-range jumpers.
George’s jumper looked flat (he was 2-9 from three), but he made it clear postgame that there were some extenuating circumstances at play.
George also pointed out that the timing of the game (12:30 p.m. tipoff) might’ve affected his team’s effort level.
George is right—the Clippers are bad when it comes to 12:30 games. They’re 1-3 this season when games tip that early, and one of those defeats was the historic 124-73 blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks early in the year. It is not out of the realm of possibility for the Clippers to play a 12:30 game in the playoffs, so they’d better discover the wonders of caffeine soon.
Playoff rotation taking shape
Lue went with a nine-man rotation against the Knicks, playing Leonard and George heavier minutes and keeping fringe role players like Luke Kennard and Terance Mann sidelined. The bench, consisting of Nicolas Batum, DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Patrick Beverley, played with one of Leonard or George at all times, allowing the Clippers an offensive creator for 48 straight minutes.
Lue is likely to continue tinkering a bit in the last four games of the regular season, but this nine-man squad looks to be the playoff rotation moving forward. Ideally, Lue would probably prefer to give Cousins’ 16 minutes of action to Serge Ibaka, but his status is still in flux (more on that in a bit).
The three-man point guard rotation gives Lue multiple ball-handlers at all times, and Beverley and Jackson’s three-point shooting prowess make up for Rondo’s lack thereof.
What is most intriguing is that Lue finally went back to the Clippers’ small-ball lineup, with Marcus Morris Sr. at center alongside Beverley, George, Leonard and Batum. Though this lineup has been atrocious so far this season (-21.1 net rating), the sample size is small (23 minutes of playing time) and it gives the Clippers a versatility they’ll need against certain teams in the postseason.
A promising Serge Ibaka update
Batum gave an encouraging nugget of information to the media postgame about his fellow French speaker Ibaka, who has missed LA’s last 28 games with a nebulous back injury.
Ibaka would later post this photo on his instagram, with the caption “Time to get back on the road with the Guys.”
Whether or not Ibaka plays in any of the remaining regular-season games is unclear, but the fact that he is traveling with the team is definitely a trend in the right direction. Many Clipper fans were beginning to fear that Ibaka’s injury was so severe (the only diagnosis the Clippers have given the media is “lower back tightness”) that he might miss games in the first round of the playoffs.
Ibaka is a necessary piece within the Clippers’ championship aspirations. Unlike DeMarcus Cousins, Ibaka can hold his own defensively, and he offers the Clippers a floor-spacing element that Ivica Zubac lacks.
The Clippers will begin said road trip with a game against the Toronto Raptors, tipping off from their temporary home in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday at 4:30.