Inside The Knicks Defense: How Tom Thibodeau’s team has dominated

NY Knicks (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
NY Knicks (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images) /
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James Harden, Julius Randle, Nerlens Noel, Reggie Bullock, Knicks. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

Knicks: Tom Thibodeau’s aggressive defense

Tom Thibodeau has been in the NBA for quite some time now. After serving as an assistant coach in the NBA for over a decade (Including 8 years with The Knicks from 1996-2004) Tom Thibodeau won a championship as the associate head coach for the Boston Celtics in 2008 under head coach Doc Rivers. His reputation as the “Defensive mastermind” behind the Celtics earned him a head coaching gig with The Chicago Bulls. Thibodeau would later coach The Minnesota Timberwolves, and now here he is as the man in charge of The New York Knicks.

Thibodeau has been hailed as an innovator for the modern NBA defense. Defenses have had to keep pace with NBA’ offenses rapid ball movement, multi-faceted players, and stretched-out floor spacing. Much of the game is focused on winning battles at the perimeter and that’s exactly what Tom Thibodeau defenses do – Attack the perimeter.

The Knicks will relentlessly attack pick-and-rolls and dare teams to make cross-court passes. Even if the team is able to execute a difficult pass to the other side of the court, The Knicks trust that one of their defenders shading towards that side of the court will be able to rotate in time. You need to execute quick, sharp passes all-night-long to beat this kind of suffocation.

When The Knicks defeated the high-powered Portland Trail Blazers on February 6th, star point guard Damian Lillard said in his postgame interview,

"“Did you see how they were doubling me?… I just thought they were aggressive. They obviously wanted to send a lot of attention to the ball.”"

The aggressive defense and double-teaming at the perimeter are often reflected by the “Drop coverage” that Tom Thibodeau teams have executed for years. With drop coverage, the team will send the big man out to help defend the perimeter but have him sink back into the paint, while the guard who was initially defending the ball-handler fights to get back to his perimeter man while also defending the roll-man. It’s a lot of responsibility that requires constant communication between two defenders.

This style of aggressive defense on the pick and roll doesn’t just happen at the top of the key, it happens all over the court. When The Knicks play their drop coverage towards the sides of the perimeter, they’ll execute what’s called “Ice coverage”. Similarly to drop coverage, the big man will sink in the paint. The perimeter defender will essentially guide the ball-handler into the big man, and suddenly, the player dribbling the ball is stuck in the paint with a much bigger defender.

When executed correctly, it’s a nightmare to overcome. If the ballhandler stops their dribble or tries to go back out to the paint, they’ll get hit with an immediate double team. You’ll usually have to keep dribbling through the paint and either look to isolate the big man on the perimeter or reset the offense entirely. It’s ardous to get through the Thibodeau pick-and roll-defense.

Thibodeau’s teams will constantly be overloading defenders towards the side of the court where the ball is, making sure all his guys are ready to pounce on any opportunity to jump into a passing lane. Let’s see how he’s specifically utizlied the Knicks’ personnel.