By reputation, Tom Thibodeau keeps his hand on the crank of a meat grinder: his favorite players go in, throbbing gristle comes out. Yet during the regular season, the Knicks coach actually played it somewhat cool as far as managing his stars' playing time. No Knick was in the top 15 in minutes per game. Julius Randle, who led the league in this category two seasons ago, played a relatively humane 35.5, and Jalen Brunson managed 35.0.
But potential elimination from the second-round series against the Miami Heat gave Thibs cover to get back to the crank without qualms. Two players played all 48 minutes of the Knicks' 112-103 Game 5 win on Wednesday, sacrificing their cartilage to protect the remnants of a 19-point lead. One was Brunson, with a valiant 38 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists. (Asked how he felt about his coach running him the entire game, Brunson broke into a tiny smile: "If we win, I'm OK with it.") The other, quieter savior was Quentin Grimes, who made the play of the game through clenched teeth.
Grimes, my favorite young player on the team, started 66 games as a cussedly three-and-D machine, shooting 39 percent from the arc and immiserating the other team's best scorer. After a shoulder injury in the first-round series against the Cavs, he lost his starting job to Josh Hart, a man who emerged from the head of Thibs, like Athena did Zeus.Hart defends hard, rebounds as if a foot taller, and would lose any number of molars for a loose ball in the first quarter—but earns little respect as a shooter. This has unpleasant knock-on effects for an offense as reliant on drives as New York's. Help defenders could peel off and impede Randle, Brunson, or RJ Barrett's forays into the paint. As soon as Grimes was hurled back into heavy minutes for Games 4 and 5, his mere presence re-opened the floor.
On Wednesday, 48 minutes was plenty of time for Grimesto fill out a balanced box score while chasing around Jimmy Butler: eight points, four rebounds, five assists, two steals, and two blocks. Four turnovers too, but any imperfections would be smothered by Grimes's heroic stop with just under two minutes left in the game. Bam Adebayo set yet another war crime of a moving screen; Grimes hurt his left leg and fell on his butt. The Heat didn't exploit this numbers advantage, which gave Grimes time to hobble back in front of Butler, hold his ground, and rip the ball away. The Knicks held on from there. After the game, Grimes waved off the injury as nothing more than a banged knee.
Not seen in that highlight: Thibodeau's eyes rolling back into his skull. Bodily pain and a winning defensive play while playing the entire game? The coach could find no sweeter ecstasy.