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Even Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau felt the Knicks needed a break to savor their accomplishments.
After the winning streak hit eight Wednesday in their overtime thriller over Atlanta to move them into fourth place in the Eastern Conference, Thibodeau told his players to cease and desist Thursday.
While Thibodeau has cut back on formal practices/scrimmages during the 72-game pandemic season, several players often flock back to the club’s Tarrytown facility for nighttime shooting.
Each player carries his own keycard to give them access to the Knicks campus. Knicks players, too, frequently land in cities and go straight to a local gym to get up shots.
“We have like a keycard card, we have 24-hour access,” said Immanuel Quickley, whose rookie year has been a revelation. “Coach says, he may turn off the card because he declared a blackout day. Nobody’s allowed to go into the gym, but I’ll probably still go.”
The coaching staff believes it’s the major reason the Knicks went from a suspect 3-point shooting team on paper to sixth in the league in 3-point percentage through Wednesday’s games at 38.3 percent.
The fourth-place Knicks, who own a glittering 33-27 record that has caught LeBron James’ attention, don’t play again until Saturday vs. Toronto as they continue a six-game homestand.
Players still had to show up Thursday in Tarrytown for daily COVID-19 tests, but Thibodeau’s message to the players was enjoy the night at home.
“A blackout day is an order from Thibs, and he just declared that nobody’s allowed to be really on the court and doing stuff,” Quickley said after the Atlanta win. “We got an early game coming up so he declared that nobody’s supposed to come in. But the guys that want to work, will probably still try to come in anyway.”
RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Quickley are the leaders of the night patrol, but it’s spread across the roster. Barrett almost never misses a night — at home or on the road.
One factor in this diligent nightwork is the players have nothing else going on. There’s a lack of social life during the pandemic.
On the road, the players are instructed not to leave the hotel to carouse, though sources believe the NBA will soon relax restrictions. Player appearances during homestands are nil because of the pandemic.
It’s all basketball, all the time – a perfect atmosphere for Thibodeau and his pack of gym rats.
When asked if the evening sessions have sparked the Knicks’ 3-point shooting improvement, Barrett said, “Of course. Everybody’s working. We’re a team. We’re always in the gym. And it’s showing out there on the court. I also feel it’s somebody different every night is going out here and playing well for us. It’s a testament to our work.”
The 3-point shooting of Barrett, Randle and Quickley has been startling. While Quickley was known as a 3-point shooting demon at Kentucky, Barrett and Randle have monumentally reversed their deep-shooting ways.
Barrett and Quickley usually come in at night and shoot with Knicks assistant coach Darren Erman supervising.
During last season’s disappointing rookie campaign, Barrett’s 3-point shooting was alarming for a shooting guard — 32 percent. His percentage has increased to 38.6 percent. Across the last 13 games, Barrett is shooting 51.5 percent from 3 – almost money on corner 3s.
Randle has gone from a dreadful 27.7 percent last season to 41 percent – an unheard-of rise from one season to the next. Thibodeau says Randle becoming dangerous from 3-point range has opened up his entire game. Teams are still giving him space on his 3-ball because they are more worried about his bulldozing drives.
The Knicks finished 27th out of 30 teams in 3-point shooting in 2019-20 at (33.7 percent). Their only additions to boost the deep shooting were Alec Burks, who is at 40.8 percent, and Quickley (38.7 percent).
It was unclear entering preseason if Quickley would make the rotation. In a 3-point shooting league, there was indeed worry. Late Wednesday, on a night the Knicks drilled 19 of 45 3-pointers, Thibodeau admitted it was once “a big concern.”
For now, the Knicks have eight players shooting 36 percent or better from 3. When opposing coaches talk about the Knicks, they talk about their grinding, physical defense. The coaches never reference the Knicks’ 3-point shooting – the unsung factor in turning the NBA on its ear and wiping out seven years of being a laughingstock.
Because of the particularly condensed schedule this past month and stress of being tested twice daily, Thibodeau hasn’t staged a formal practice since March 22. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t film sessions and individual workouts.
“We’ve put a lot of time into the shooting,” Thibodeau said. “So guys come in at night, or they shoot around on off days or film days. So they’ve made a very serious commitment. I think by working the way they worked, it’s given them confidence. The two biggest things with shooting are confidence and concentration. So, if you make that commitment to put the work in and grow your shot and you have a checklist on your shot, it helps.”
In the Players Tribune in February, Randle wrote he led the way as the Knicks’ night owl on the road – in the gym, not the nightclub. Randle picked it up from his ex-Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant.
“Every time we get in, guys go out (to shoot),” Randle said. “It’s not that late though. It’s not a 1 a.m. thing.”
That might be next.
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