Sixteen months into his official hiring, the bloom is off the Tom Thibodeau rose.
If you are what your record says you are, as Bill Parcells famously said, Thibodeau’s and Leon Rose’s Knicks are losers.
In one of the worst performances of the Thibodeau era, despite the 113-99 final score, the Knicks fell behind by 30 points early in the fourth quarter Saturday afternoon to Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets and lost their third straight, amid plenty of Garden boos.
The loss pushed them under the .500 mark at 11-12 and out of play-in-tournament position, as they dropped to 11th place in the East. It’s the first time the Knicks have been beneath .500 since they were 16-17 after 33 games during their 2020-21 renaissance.
It took Thibodeau until a half-hour after the game before he addressed the media. He spoke even after one of the players, Julius Randle. Owner James Dolan was in his customary baseline seat and might have wanted some answers.
Randle issued a call-to-arms proclamation as the first postgame speaker.
“I have to be better,’’ said Randle, whose key third-quarter turnover sparked the Nuggets’ game-deciding 21-3 run. “Everybody has to be better. And I’ll take responsibility from the team. I’ll take responsibility for myself. That doesn’t bother me. At the end of the day, I just wanna win. We gotta look ourselves in the mirror and decide what we want the season to be. I know what I want it to be. I know what the guys want it to be. But we have to commit to it.’’
Jokic, the NBA’s reigning MVP, was a bull inside and a sniper from deep as he racked up 32 points and 11 rebounds in 27 minutes. He was 14-for-19 from the field.
“Disappointed,’’ Thibodeau said. “The way we’re playing at home, that’s the disappointing part. When you have an MVP-type player, we can’t start the game the way we did. We have to get our edge back defensively. We got into it together. We go to get out of it together.’’
The Knicks are 0-3 since Thibodeau officially demoted veteran point guard Kemba Walker from the rotation, but the coach indicated he will carry on with the plan for now.
The undermanned Nuggets led by 44-28 in the second quarter, forcing Thibodeau into a timeout with under 6:30 left before halftime as boos rained down for the first time.
“We’re in a funk right now,’’ said Randle, who finished with 24 points, but padded his stats in fourth-quarter garbage time. “The biggest thing defensively is our communication isn’t great right now.’’
Randle went on long rant saying the Knicks have lost their defensive identity.
“We’re going to win games with our defense,” he said. “That’s who we are. We’re not the superstars, three, four superstars on the team like Brooklyn or all these other teams. We’re a team. How we were last year, how we have to be this year as well.
“It’s who we are as a team, how we built this team and this culture is just fighting defensively, the togetherness, just the effort, the hustle plays. I feel like that’s what the city of New York loves. That’s what the fans love — when they know we’re out there giving it our all. And I think sometimes we’re too lax.’’
The Nuggets shot 20-for-43 from 3-point range — and even obscure former Arizona big man Zeke Nnaji went off for 21 points (5-for-9 from 3). The Knicks’ defense under Thibodeau is about closing off the paint and hence needing extra spark to get out to the 3-point line.
“Covering the [3-point] line has to better,’’ Thibodeau said. “We have to make, three, four, five efforts. We have to fix the effort part.’’
Randle’s turnover in the third quarter stood as a key turning point. The Knicks had closed to within 69-63 midway through the quarter, with the Garden crowd chanting “Let’s Go Knicks,’’ but then Randle coughed it up, leading to a Jeff Green fast-break dunk.
Evan Fournier was intercepted for another Nuggets fast-break hoop as Denver went on a 21-3 run. Jokic was brilliant during the spree — at one point taking a lob inside and breaking through a double team of RJ Barrett and Alec Burks.
The game marked the return of Barrett, who missed the loss to the Bulls on Thursday with a non-COVID illness to snap his 108-game playing streak. Barrett was just 1-for-7 from 3-point land.
“I think we’re at a point in the season where we just are trying to figure it out, trying to figure out who we’re gonna be, what we’re gonna do every night,’’ Barrett said. “And whoever it is, whoever we’re gonna be, we gotta figure that out quick and just make sure we stick to it and win some games.’’
It marked the end of a seven-game gauntlet in which the Knicks also faced the Bulls twice, as well as the Lakers, Suns, Hawks and Nets. The Knicks next play in San Antonio on Tuesday night to begin an easier stretch, though nothing is coming easy during this 2021-22 season.