The last time Tom Thibodeau faced the Timberwolves, on Feb. 21, he got their coach fired.
That coach, Ryan Saunders, was Thibodeau’s successor in Minnesota after Thibodeau got axed in January 2019.
In February, Thibodeau’s Knicks nipped the Wolves, 103-99, after nearly flushing away a 21-point fourth-quarter lead. The late comeback did nothing to save Saunders’ job as he exited that night with a deplorable record of 43-94.
Thibodeau heads to Minnesota on Wednesday for the first time since his ouster to face the league-worst Wolves (11-36) at Target Center.
While Minnesota residents do not need to hide the women and children, Thibodeau is looking to inflict more damage on the hockey-mad city — no matter his recent Minnesota diplomacy. Last month before facing the T’wolves, he said, “It was a good experience.”
“He had success in his second year by making the playoffs and from there everything went south,” one NBA executive said. “I am sure he left Minny with some type of unfinished-business sentiment.”
The Knicks did not have a formal practice Tuesday, so Thibodeau was not made available for comment. It’s the third straight off day Thibodeau did not hold practice, indicating he has grown to realize it’s a marathon not a sprint.
Thibodeau’s taskmaster act was regarded as too much for the young Wolves and he was dismissed despite breaking Minnesota’s 14-year playoff drought in his second season, 2017-18.
Taj Gibson, the Knicks’ backup center who played for Thibodeau in Minnesota, has noticed this version of Thibodeau is slightly milder.
“Yeah, he’s always smiling a lot more,” Gibson said. “ He’s paying more attention to detail with the young guys. He’s really teaching a lot more than he did in the past, just understanding the circumstances of how everybody is day to day. … Every day he’s being himself, being more joyful, enjoying the moment while trying to teach the young guys at the same time.”
The Wolves aren’t allowing fans back until April 5 when Thibodeau will be long gone, sparing him jeers. (Only family and friends are permitted inside Target Center).
Wolves fans have to realize a mistake when they see one. Thibodeau is a leading coach of the year candidate after lifting the Knicks already past their win total of last season (21) and into strong playoff contention at 24-23.
The fifth-place Knicks haven’t played meaningful games this late in the season since 2014. Credit a new defense that is No. 1 in the league in opponent scoring, allowing just 104.6 points.
Meanwhile, the Wolves are led by rookie coach Chris Finch, formerly a Raptors assistant. How franchise centerpiece Karl-Anthony Towns, a New Jersey product, gets along with the new Minnesota leader could be a factor in whether he requests a trade.
After the hiring of Finch, who is white, Towns said he feels more opportunities should be given to black coaches.
While Thibodeau and Towns didn’t see eye to eye, crazier reunions have happened. Thibodeau’s stock is on the rise thanks to his connection with the Knicks young players.
“The aspect I enjoy is that [Thibodeau] is in the gym at night,” Gibson said. “And the young guys are coming at night, too. It’s just constant work. It’s a great thing for the culture.”