Inside look at Tom Thibodeau’s legendary work ethic: ‘no shortcuts’

Inside look at Tom Thibodeau’s legendary work ethic: ‘no shortcuts’

Ed Pinckney went hungry that night.

He wanted BBQ on Beale Street with the rest of the Bulls coaching staff after landing in Memphis, but the call from Tom Thibodeau halted plans.

“I see you handed me your report and there’s a play you didn’t put in there,” Thibodeau told the assistant. “You got to go back and put this play in.”

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau directs his players during a game against the Raptors earlier this season. Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

“Needless to say,” Pinckney said, “I didn’t go to Beale Street.”

Pinckney knew what to expect from Thibodeau.

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He appreciated it back then, and even more so today, about a decade later.

The play in question seemed innocuous — a new wrinkle to the Grizzlies playbook — “a quick-hitter” — but Thibodeau saw it on film and required it on the scouting sheet.

Thibodeau’s voice still rings in Pinckney’s ears: “There are no shortcuts.”

And after the completed scouting report circulated around the players, the Bulls won that game in 2014 — while Pinckney’s assignment, Nikola Mirotic, dropped 27 points.

“I coached at Villanova [under Jay Wright]. I coached at Minnesota [under Randy Wittman]. Great coaches,” said Pinckney, an assistant under Thibodeau for eight seasons and now a scout for the Rockets. “But their preparation was different. I played in Miami and the Heat Culture and all that stuff is great, too. But game-time preparation?”

Pinckney laughs dismissively at his own question.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau argues with an official during a game earlier this season. AP

“Not everybody coaches the same way,” he said. “Tom’s way is to be the best-prepared coach.”

As his team begins its third playoffs in four years, Thibodeau enters with probably the highest approval for a Knicks coach in decades.

Nobody expected a second-seed out of a fully healthy Knicks squad, let alone one with three starters who underwent in-season surgeries.

But there’s also pressure and important lingering questions surrounding Thibodeau before Saturday’s Game 1 against the 76ers.

The 66-year-old still doesn’t have a contract extension.

Though there’s confidence in an offseason agreement, it’s hard to predict how a first-round flameout would impact James Dolan’s thinking.

Without an extension, Thibodeau would enter next season with an expiring deal and NBA coaches typically don’t make it to lame-duck status.

Tom Thibodeau and Josh Hart talk strategy during a Knicks’ game earlier this season. Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

A common knock on Thibodeau, beyond the overblown minutes critique that’s followed him from Chicago, is that his pedestrian playoff record (31-41) compared to his regular-season excellence (527-389) is indicative of trying harder when other teams are coasting.

In other words, he’s the runner who sprints to the lead of the first three laps in the mile race before finishing fifth.

It has been 13 years since Thibodeau advanced to his only conference final as a head coach.

But he also never inherited a winning team — only made them in Chicago, Minnesota and New York — and establishes a culture that is based around preparation over buzzwords (ahem, David Fizdale).

That starts in training camp, as it did this season, with a physical playbook that Miles McBride estimated to be 5 inches thick.

“Initially [when I got it] I was like, ‘What the hell?’ ” Donte DiVincenzo said. “Because it was the first time in my career I’ve gotten something like that. And then, the way my brain works is like, ‘Why is he doing this?’ And then the thing I learned about him is everything in that book — you might not know where it’s at, but he knows where it’s at. And you know that because midway through the year, he’ll throw something out there.”

Verbal quizzes can be sprung on players, which had Josh Hart concerned Wednesday.

There’s also new playoff playbooks/videos arriving shortly.

“I’d probably fail a pop quiz,” Hart said. “I might go home and study a little bit today. He’s giving us the keys to the test tomorrow so we’ll see.”

In the digital age, a voluminous book is a bit of a throwback.

“I feel like Thibs would still have a CD player in his car if he could,” DiVincenzo said.

For Isaiah Hartenstein, the training-camp playbook is more symbolic than practical.

Isaiah Hartenstein says Tom Thibodeau’s work ethic provides motivation for the players. Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The center said he didn’t feel the need to memorize it in his second season in New York. “A lot of other teams, they’ll give you a smaller book,” he said. “… I’ve never seen something where it’s a big book and we probably don’t run half of the plays.”

But he appreciates the effort.

“He just puts in a lot of work, tries to give you no excuses not to know anything,” Hartenstein said. “Just seeing him in the office that long, I think you don’t have any excuse not to work. From that standpoint, yeah, it’s a privilege to have someone — it kind of makes you want to play harder knowing that he’s putting in that much work.

“Whenever you go into the gym, it doesn’t matter what time — it could be early, could be late at night. His office looks out to the court. And you could see his light on.”

As Pinckney noticed over his many years with Thibodeau — which included a season as a player in Philadelphia — there’s a method to the intensity. Repetition and knowledge breeds confidence and comfort in the system.

Pinckney’s now scouting Thibodeau’s teams and rarely, if ever, catches a player in the wrong position.

“You don’t watch the Knicks and say, ‘That guy is out of place,’ ” Pinckney said. “It’s taken for granted. But that’s what he does for his players and his coaches and it works well.”

Pinckney was also blown away by Thibodeau’s institutional knowledge and coaching genius, specifically during a meeting with Mike Fratello in Chicago.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gives instructions to Precious Achiuwa (left) as Josh Hart looks on during a game earlier this season. AP

Fratello, the former NBA Coach of the Year, had just taken over the Ukrainian national team and sat down with Thibodeau for a coaching powwow.

The idea was to glean advice on how to handle the pick-and-roll heavy offenses in Europe, and it turned into a long — emphasis on long — discussion that sounded like a meeting at the Los Alamos Lab in “Oppenheimer.”

“Fratello went from team to team — Russia, Lithuania. And it was every play. And it was off the top of his head,” Pinckney said. “ ‘So Lithuania runs this — Thibs how would you guard this?’

“No books in the room. No film. No food. No water. No nothing. And Thibs is like, ‘Oh yeah, you do this, do that, and that’s how you get that stop.’ They did this for literally four or five hours. It was unbelievable.”

Pinckney, an assistant with Ukraine at the time, said it felt like a competition between the two.

“Mike would draw up a play. Thibs would draw up the defense to stop it,” Pinckney said. “I’m a neophyte coach, I was sitting there like, ‘Are you f–king kidding me? This is crazy.’ ”

That type of recall requires Thibodeau’s favorite exercise — preparation.

The Knicks will have had a week’s worth of that before their playoff game Saturday at MSG, and the only guarantee is Thibodeau will have turned every stone.

Solving what’s underneath is always more complicated.

“I never have regrets,” Thibodeau said, “because I know what I’m putting into it.”