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The ending is what will gnaw at these Knicks for a couple of days, before they take on the Wizards in Washington on Friday. The ending was a beautiful drive by RJ Barrett that went all wrong, with clever old Jimmy Butler staying with Barrett just long enough to force Barrett to go higher on the glass than he wanted.
The ball spun away. The final buzzer groaned at AmericanAirlines Arena. There would be no overtime. There would be no payback for Sunday’s hotly contested game between these two teams. There would be no satisfying flight home from Miami. The final score was 98-96, Heat, the final verdict that the Knicks, though better, are still learning how to win, and part if that curve involves learning how not to lose.
“We need everyone to play well,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “And we just came up short in the end.”
But if you have invested yourself in this Knicks team, you saw something that had to make you feel awfully good. By now, you have surely learned to trust Thibodeau, to rely on his instincts, to recognize that he knows the small nuances that allow willing teams to get better.
So it should have been obvious that Thibodeau wasn’t interested in some feel-good reunion when it became clear Derrick Rose wasn’t simply available but interested in a second tour with the Knicks and a third tour under Thibodeau’s tutelage. Thibodeau has made it clear he is about one thing and one thing only.
And there is one certain way to make that ambition real.
“I’ve always been partial,” he’d said earlier in the day, “to good players.”
And Rose, even at 32, even after the twists and turns of a sometimes star-crossed career, is still a good player. As if to reinforce that — and also to quell whatever fears Knicks fans might’ve harbored that he was going to steal Immanuel Quickley’s playing time — the two of them checked in together at the same time Tuesday night, No. 4 and No. 5 taking the floor with 3:27 left in the first quarter and the Knicks down seven.
And over the next six minutes, spanning two quarters, the Knicks went on a 25-6 run. Quickley was fine. But it was Rose who raised eyebrows: getting to the basket with the old flair, shooting it well, making a steal, encouraging his teammates. It was impossible to keep your eyes off him.
He would finish with 14 points and three assists, playing only 20 minutes. As the Knicks were trying to steal one from the Heat late in the fourth he was on the bench, Thibodeau not wanting to ask too much of his first day on the job. But you could sense the impact immediately.
Quickley, in the morning, had talked about Rose seeking him and Obi Toppin out at dinner Monday night, giving them his cell number, all but demanding that they pick his brain. Quickley laughed about their shared legacy as survivors of John Calipari’s tough-love college apprenticeship, and laughed that Thibodeau was coach for both of them their rookie years in the NBA.
“There’s so much I can learn from him,” Quickley said.
“He’s always trying to win,” Barrett said. “It’s great to have a guy like that on our team.”
As for Rose himself? He seemed downright moved to get another crack at New York, and to re-up his partnership with Thibodeau, a pairing that really could have delivered something special in Chicago a decade ago if bad fortune hadn’t intervened.
“We have a synergy, I can’t explain it,” Rose said. “We’re an odd couple but for some reason we understand the game the same way, we’re students of the game, we watch the game and try to understand it better.”
He not only understands that part of his role with the Knicks will be helping the kids get acclimated to NBA life, he enthusiastically endorsed it.
“My job,” he said, “is to come in and understand I want to be a mentor to the young kids, help them develop. And also show I can still hoop a little bit,”
He showed a little bit of all of that Tuesday, a game the Knicks lost, because they’re still learning how not to lose games like this. Those lessons might just be more easily understood going forward. There’s a new mentor in the house. And he can still hoop a little bit.
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