Tom Thibodeau sees similarity between Jalen Brunson-led squad and 1990s Knicks

Feb 27, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) controls the ball against the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden.

Feb 27, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) controls the ball against the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Thibodeau was an assistant coach with the Knicks for seven seasons, starting in 1996-97. So he had a front-row seat to the franchise’s last era of sustained success.

He sees one similarity between those teams and the 2022-23 Knicks: their daily habits.

“I love coaching these guys, they’re committed to each other,” Thibodeau said before his team beat the Nets soundly for their seventh-straight win. “They live in the gym, they’re gym rats, so they’re going to get better and better.”

Thibodeau said the way this Knicks team approaches practice/preparing for games reminds him of some of Patrick Ewing’s teams.

“Patrick Ewing set the tone for all of that. When you walked in [the gym] – could be the middle of the summer – he was in there, he was your hardest worker,” Thibodeau said. “When your best players are setting the tone for the team, it’s special.”

The 2022-23 version of Ewing is Jalen Brunson. Thibodeau said he was reminded of some of those 1990s Knicks teams the first time he saw Brunson in the gym with his teammates this offseason.

“I hate to say it but … that’s what their team was like,” Thibodeau said, referencing the Ewing and Allan Houston Knicks teams of the mid-to-late 90s.

Fast forward a few months after that first workout, and Brunson’s leadership and on-court production have been better than advertised. In his first Knicks season, Brunson has helped lead the Knicks to fifth place in the Eastern Conference with five weeks to go in the regular season.

He’s done it as a scorer and as a table-setter.

On Wednesday, Brunson had 30 points in the first half on 12-of-14 shooting. He took just one shot in the third quarter, choosing to set up his teammates and search for the best shot on a given play.

“It’s easy when you go up 20, 30 to kind of have that mentality of ‘alright, let me be a little more aggressive. I’m five points away from my career high, let me go get it,’” Josh Hart says. “But [Brunson] is someone who plays within himself. He’s a team-first player. He wants to be successful and he wants his team to be successful. He’s willing to sacrifice when he needs to. He’s willing to make the right play and the right pass and that’s something that we lean on him for.”

Brunson has taken on a leadership role in his first Knicks season. The group seems to have adopted his team-first mentality. Look no further than Wednesday, when six Knicks scored at least 13 points.

“We’re winning. What’s better than that? Everyone always says they wanna be part of a winning team and stuff, and that’s kinda what it looks like,” RJ Barrett says. “Just a bunch of good players. You don’t know whose night it’s gonna be on any given night. But we always play hard and no matter what we all cheer for each other.”

On Wednesday, it was Brunson’s night. But he wasn’t alone. Quentin Grimes had 22 points in 26 minutes, hitting six of nine three-point attempts. Overall, New York hit 20 of 35 threes.

Afterward, there were a lot of jokes and laughs in the Knicks locker room. Some of it happened as Grimes conducted his postgame interview.

“A lot of laughter,” he said. “Everybody is just fun to be around.

“….The last 20-something games, people have been clicking in, buying in, not worried about individual stuff. Just worrying about what they can do to help the team. And you see it out there on the court every night.”