Tom Thibodeau was back on the sidelines for the first time in nearly two years — even if it was preseason and against one of the league’s dregs, the Pistons.
But it didn’t feel the same to Thibodeau at an empty Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
“I don’t know if it’s like riding a bike,’’ Thibodeau said after his Knicks held off a late Pistons charge to win their preseason opener 90-84. “You’re in an NBA arena with no fans. It was strange, but it was great. Just to be out there in a game situation was great, but I think it also is a reminder like of how serious the COVID thing is when you’re looking out and you don’t see any fans.’’
All the safety protocols didn’t stop Thibodeau from removing his mask once so his rant at a referee could be heard more clearly.
Thibodeau will soon get used to lack of crowds as the Knicks continue a four-game preseason schedule with another tilt in Detroit on Sunday.
Perhaps we will learn more then about these Knicks, who have been discarded as starless afterthoughts in the Eastern Conference.
Yet on Friday, the Knicks showed how much coaching can really matter. They played a spirited brand of defense that hasn’t been seen from the Knicks since … well, since Thibodeau was an assistant coach with Jeff Van Gundy in the late 1990s.
The opponent was only the woebegone Pistons, but it was a refreshing change watching the Knicks rebound well, guard the 3-point line and disrupt passes on the way to forcing 22 turnovers.
Yes, the biggest upgrade to the franchise this offseason, after a quiet free agency, is probably the coach.
There still were bright signs, even if Thibodeau kept his rotation to just nine men with rookie guard Immanuel Quickley, the Knicks’ other first-round pick, surprisingly not even getting off the pine.
Rookie lottery pick Obi Toppin, the Knicks’ second-most important addition, put forth a solid first half with nine of his 11 points, scoring in all ways, including a transition dunk that showed his conditioning, grace and speed.
Toppin, coming off the bench, seemed comfortable, even if he forced some passes in the second half, when the Pistons, who passed him up in the draft, put more focus on shutting him down.
A great sign was fellow power forward Julius Randle taking Toppin under his wing and lecturing him on two occasions, once after he bought a pump fake from Blake Griffin at the 3-point line. They play the same position and they didn’t share the floor once.
“Jules, he told me as soon as I came to the timeout he was like, ‘That’s what he does every time,’ ’’ Toppin said. “I knew for the next time I was guarding him not to jump on that pump fake.’’
As for the other young guns, 2018 lottery pick, Kevin Knox, also off the bench, wasn’t making his open shots often enough, but he looked good in transition and moving the ball. Knox was 2-for-6 — 0-for-3 from 3-point range.
In fact, 2019 lottery pick, RJ Barrett and Knox combined to go 0-for-7 from outside the 3-point stripe. No, it doesn’t look like Leon Rose has turned these Knicks into a good 3-point shooting team — they went 4-for-22 in the preseason opener. Dennis Smith Jr. (four turnovers) was still sloppy and Frank Ntilikina was very fine on defense, but not really forcing the issue offensively, per usual.
That’s why Thibodeau is surely going to turn to Quickley on Sunday as he’s already being hailed by the coach as one of the NBA’s top marksman.
With Thibodeau, a strong defensive center tag team of Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson and a couple of late clutch shots from Randle, the Knicks looked like they should at least be competitive — and not blown out like as many times as they were under David Fizdale and even Mike Miller.
Even if there are no fans to watch in person.