Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has enjoyed three days to prepare for Sunday’s game against the Timberwolves — and that’s bad news for Minnesota.
If this game isn’t Thibodeau’s Super Bowl Sunday, it’s close to it. The first-year Knicks coach doesn’t need a victory over that woebegone franchise Sunday to be vindicated in what will be the Garden’s last game without fans. But it would be sweet.
The Timberwolves’ record since Thibodeau was fired on Jan. 19, 2019, for Flip Saunders’ son, Ryan, speaks for itself.
Under the NBA’s youngest coach in Saunders, 34, Minnesota has gone an embarrassing 43-93 and enters the Garden with the NBA’s worst record at 7-23.
“There’s a lot of good people there,’’ Thibodeau said after Saturday’s practice. “I enjoyed my time there. It was a good experience. I was proud of what we were able to accomplish but it was time to move on. Unfortunately there are a lot of former teams for me.’’
For his part, Ryan Saunders thanked Thibodeau for being there when his father died, adding, “He’s a tireless worker. He’s helped me a lot in my career. He taught me a lot about professionalism and approach. He has that team playing well.”
Thibodeau will take the high road, but he knows this dismissal was the only one that hurt his image. Thibodeau, 63, is trying to break the Knicks’ playoff drought of seven years just as he snapped the Timberwolves’ playoff drought of 14 seasons when he weaved a 47-35 clip in 2017-18.
All that got him was a pink slip from owner Glen Taylor after he engineered a trade for old ally Jimmy Butler. Also fired were current Knicks assistants Andy Greer, Larry Greer and Dice Yoshimoto.
Butler, who was traded to Philly, didn’t take well to Minnesota’s young players such as 2015 No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns and since-traded 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins.
Thibdoeau’s taskmaster approach was called into question. He became viewed as a coach who no longer connected to young players while his trademark defense did not shine in Minnesota like it did in his previous stop in Chicago. It’s working in New York as the 14-16 Knicks have allowed the fewest points in the NBA this season.
As for Towns, who has ripped Thibodeau, the Knicks coach said Saturday, “Karl is as good as it gets offensively.’’ Thibodeau added the Timberwolves are a different team since Towns recently returned from a two-week-plus absence due to testing positive for COVID-19.
Thibodeau, who posted a 98-107 clip, thinks he did good work in Minnie despite the sour ending.
“You look at your team, strengths and weaknesses and try to cover up weaknesses you have,’’ Thibodeau said when asked why his defense didn’t mesh in Minnesota. “I was proud of where we were. We were a terrific offensive team. Many people didn’t think we’d be that. We were a top five team in offense.
“The second year we finished with the second-best record [against the Western Conference]. I was really proud of that accomplishment as well. There were things obviously we wanted to do better. That second year, we were very good. The third year I thought we had a really good chance as well even after the trade for Jimmy. That team was playing well.’’
Knicks point guard Derrick Rose was on that Minnesota team and said the defensive woes “had to be personnel.’’ Rose declined to address Thibodeau’s firing, saying, “I’m trying to not think about it.’’
On May 4, as the Knicks courted Thibodeau, The Post quoted an NBA source portraying Thibodeau’s downfall there:
“He saw some young talent that he saw had a poor work ethic. Are you going to be harder on them than the previous administration?’’ the source said. “Look how happy Towns was with Saunders and look how bad they got. If they don’t like his style or methodology, obviously they want a warm and fuzzy family atmosphere like they have now.’’
Minnesota won the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft and selected athletic wing Anthony Edwards, who is being hailed for throwing down the dunk of the year against Toronto Friday — in a loss.
“His athleticism is special,’’ Thibdoeau said. “They’re a very talented team. They’ve gone through stuff with injuries. It’s been unfortunate for them. That team can put a lot of points on the board. They have a lot of pieces.”
A handful of Knicks have noted Thibodeau’s stellar game preparation. Julius Randle said this week Thibodeau provides “the most detailed game plans’’ he’s seen in his career, calling them “insane.’’
With Saturday’s COVID-19-related postponement vs. San Antonio, Thibodeau inherited three days to mock up a game plan. The original schedule called for the Minnesota showdown to be the second leg of a back-to-back. And the battle is also coming off a bad loss in Orlando.
“He wants to win because he lost the last game,’’ Rose said. “If we won the last game I think practice would’ve been more calm. Because we lost, he’s in it. He’s getting guys prepared. I don’t think we could play any worse than the Orlando game. That’s the best thing about it.’’