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Knicks’ schedule only gets more daunting with defense in free-fall

Tom Thibodeau built his reputation as a defensive-minded coach, so the Knicks’ defensive effort in their three most recent losses has to have him going out of his mind. 

From the Celtics establishing a franchise record for both teams with 27 made 3-pointers on Nov. 5 to last week’s no-show loss in Brooklyn to Sunday’s 145-point explosion by the Thunder — offsetting alternating wins in that span against the Timberwolves and the Pistons — the Knicks open a formidable five-game road trip Tuesday night in Utah as a team in defensive disarray. 

And the increasingly hot-seated Thibodeau and his 6-7 team clearly are searching for answers

“The thing that sits with me is the disappointment of losing. We have to look at every game and say, ‘OK, what do we have to fix, what do we have to prioritize?’ I know if we’re relying on trying to outscore people, that’s not gonna work,” Thibodeau said after Sunday’s brutal home loss to OKC. “Our margin of error is small. We have to play with great intensity on every possession. When we do that, we’re very successful. 

Tom Thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau’s defense has been shredded in recent games.
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“We can’t get wrapped up in a free-flowing game where we’re not containing the ball and we’re not challenging shots. If you leave a player open in this league they’re gonna make [it]. You can’t get here without being a great player. So you have to challenge shots, you have to contain the ball better, you have to guard one-on-one better. There’s no easy way out of it.” 

The inconsistent Knicks entered Monday’s league action ranked 24th in the NBA in defensive rating and 25th in points allowed at 116.8 per game. What’s worse, veteran players such as imported point guard Jalen Brunson and demoted former starter Evan Fournier openly have questioned the team’s effort level and preparedness after their recent losses. 

“The defense, the rebounding, that effort has to be counted on every night,” Thibodeau said. “Players are too good to give that type of confidence away right from the start. That’s the thing, the challenge is for us to be consistent. We can’t be up and down. It’s a hard league. There’s no shortcuts in this league. 

“We think 135 points, we should be walking out with a win, but if we don’t play defense, we’re not going to. That’s one thing that we have to be able to count on.” 

Lauri Markkanen has led the surprising Jazz.
Lauri Markkanen has led the surprising Jazz.

Starting center Mitchell Robinson has missed the past five games with a sprained knee, and guard Quentin Grimes has been barely used as he works back from the foot injury that has limited him since the start of training camp. 

“We have to take a hard look at it and then evaluate everything and what’s the best way for us to have a chance to be successful,” Thibodeau said. “I’ll always believe that it starts with your defense, your rebounding and keeping your turnovers down, and that puts you in a position to win. 

“We’re capable of doing better and we’ve shown times that we’ve guarded extremely well. What I’m concerned with is the up and down of the last four games.” 

The next five certainly won’t be any easier, with the Jazz surprisingly off to a 10-5 start under first-year coach Will Hardy despite trading All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert over the summer. 

The Knicks have won just once in Utah over their past eight visits since 2014 and they play Wednesday night in Denver, where they are winless (0-14) since 2006. The Knicks departed immediately after Sunday’s game to attempt to acclimate to the altitude in Salt Lake City and Denver. 

The daunting trip — five games in seven nights — also features stops at Golden State and Phoenix and a chance for redemption against the Thunder, who shot 62.5 percent from the field on Sunday. 

“I thought the way we played [Sunday’s] game offensively to start the game was very good and very unselfish, but our defense was the problem. So we have to fix that,” Thibodeau said. “It’s hard to win if we don’t make a better effort to defend. 

“I think offensively, guys are doing a good job and they’re trying to do the right things. But defensively the intensity has to be ramped up and we have to fix that.”

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