September 28, 2023

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With Julius Randle out, what’s next for the Knicks as the NBA playoffs loom?

Seasons of Redemption are not supposed to end this way.

Julius Randle wanted to return to All-Star status. He wanted to re-enter the All-NBA conversation. He wanted to change his style, shoot more than ever, and learn to contribute more without basketball. He wanted to lead the New York Knicks to the playoffs for the second time in three years. He wanted to throw away everything that happened last season, when he drifted into forgettable performances and the Knicks cruised to an uninspiring 37 wins.

Somehow, he pursued all of his goals – except for one.

Randle wanted to play in all 82 games. He almost did.

The truth sank in Thursday, when the Knicks announced that Randle would be sidelined with a sprained left ankle. The two-time All-Star landed an unconventional tackle on his left foot in a win over the Miami Heat the night before. Doctors will reassess him in two weeks.

The news means that Randle will miss at least the remaining five games of the New York regular season.

Two weeks from Thursday, April 13th, that is, after the Play-In tournament kicks off and just two days before the playoffs start.

The Knicks will likely still be above the Play-In tournament, but they’re not out of the fog yet. The most likely scenario is staying fifth in the Eastern Conference and facing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, but it’s not clear Randle will be around if and when that series begins. “Reassess within two weeks” is not synonymous with back Within two weeks.

Today’s Knicks don’t know if they’ll get Randle when it matters most.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way.

For 95 percent of the season, Randle was Mr. Diurlite. He played in every game and only trailed iron man Mikael Bridges in minutes. But sometimes toughness can’t defeat bad luck. And that bad luck has bad timing, too.

Here are some thoughts on the Knicks, who weren’t without Randle for the first time all season:

Who starts in Randall’s place?

Randle was injured in the second quarter of the Heat game. Obi Tobin started the third quarter in his place.

The decision seemed like a throwback to coach Tom Thibodeau’s days with the Chicago Bulls, where Keith Bogans would start in the first and third quarters but removed him midway through the period and left him on the bench for the rest of the half.

Tobin got off the ground near the end of the third. He did not enter again. Meanwhile, the Knicks played small the rest of the way – with Josh Hart and RJ Barrett at the two lead spots.

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The closing five worked because of who Miami was on the floor. The Heat started the half with a more traditional big man, Kevin Love, in the fourth but got smaller as the more crucial minutes came up, allowing New York to use the juniors in the four without much concern.

Thibodeau may be using this lineup more with Randle out, but he probably won’t start with it. Toppin’ will probably start. And depending on the matches and how the game goes, the coach can improvise from there.

Who gets into the rotation?

When Tobin, who plays at the same position as Randle, was injured earlier this season, big man Jericho Sims appeared for 12 to 15 minutes on the night, running alongside backup center Isaiah Hartenstein in a rebounding frontcourt designed to trim paint and feast. in attack. glass.

But circumstances today are different than they were then.

First, Hart wasn’t on the list yet. Thibodeau showed he had no problem using the Knicks’ latest spinning piece in the four, even if he was undersized in that spot. He cites Hart’s durability and freshness. Most of the four backup courses in 2023 are old-school junior forwards or shooting guards masquerading as strikers. Hart can protect those types – and he’s more prolific on glass than Tobin.

The other change from the Hartenstein-Sims era is that Miles McBride has made a jump over the past two months.

He provided defensive sparks during his rare opportunities since becoming the Knicks’ tenth man, the first out-of-cycle player. His crime grew. It hits more than 3 seconds and finishes around the edge much better.

This is a prediction, not a report, but based on how the team flows, McBride appears to be the most likely addition to the rotation, with the rest of the reserves slipping down into the slot, which could mean seeing Barrett play more power forward as well.

Could Thibodeau use Wednesday’s closing line-up more?

The five players to finish off the Heat (Emmanuel Kwekley, Quentin Grimes, Hart, Barrett and Hartenstein) have only played 27 minutes together all season entering Wednesday.

Thibodeau then played them the entire fourth quarter. think about it. He didn’t make a single submarine. And it worked to perfection.

This group outscored Miami 25-16 in this period. Everyone was running around the field defensively, they came out running after almost every stop and they won the game.

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Randle has been so consistent this season that it’s hard to find lineups without him. This seemed like it worked—and it did so against a strong, well-trained team in a game that was important for the standings, considering a Miami win would have drawn the Heat one game from New York.

Every now and then Thibodeau stumbles across a lineup, realizes it has some swagger to it and sees how long he can ride it. Perhaps this unit will be another example of that.

Where does the scoring come from?

The obvious answer is Jalen Bronson, who just returned from a wrist injury. He actually runs the offense and averages fewer points than Randle does.

But Randall isn’t just a scorer. Grabs defensive rebounds and drives in transition. When he’s going well, he’ll be so hot that he double-teams, then he can launch the basketball all over the court to open up the men. Part of his Revolution became one of the team’s best long-distance breaks. He would finish with the second-highest single-season three-pointers in franchise history.

Randel is often Bronson’s checking partner. Perhaps the Knicks will use Mitchell Robinson or Hartenstein to determine more options for their starting point guard. They can dislodge Toppin from the corners, where he usually resides, and use him for more screen and roll.

Ultimately, this will change the way New York crime operates.

The Knicks love to exploit mismatches. For all the chaos they’ve had to rely on individual play, offense hasn’t been the problem this season. They are fifth in points per possession, which is better than anyone could have expected. Part of the reason is that Bronson was one of the best lone scorers in the NBA. Another part is the play of Randle, who has changed the calculus with his friendly analytical shot and improved shooting.

But the Knicks can’t be successful in slowing down the game if they don’t have an All-Star.

Maybe they try to run more. Starting Toppin’ (if that’s what they choose to do) should help with that. He is one of the few strikers whose presence can affect the pace of the match.

The Knicks encourage their guards and wingers to push after taking over the defensive boards, but they often use these opportunities to force a mismatch, which they then resort to in a halffield offense.

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Part of the reason the closing lineup against Miami was so successful is that it fired whenever it was off. Speeding up and down the field is not the Knicks identity, but also playing without Randle. They may be able to detect an extra easy bucket or pail if they speed up some of it.

Where does the Knicks end up in the East?

Fifth place is still the most likely outcome. And there’s almost no way the Knicks will fall into a Play-In tournament.

If they win only two of their last five matches, they make the playoffs.

If the Heat loses only two of their last five games, the Knicks make the playoffs.

If the Knicks win at least once and the Heat lose at least one, the Knicks make the playoffs.

If the Brooklyn Nets lose two and don’t finish in a three-way game with the Heat and Knicks, the Knicks make the playoffs.

If it’s heat and networking… you get the picture.

Here’s the general theme: It would take an unprecedented collapse for the Knicks to get into the Play-In Championship. They will almost certainly stay in fifth place.

Includes the Cleveland Cavaliers’ last five road games. a home game against the Washington Wizards, who did not play Kyle Kuzma or Bradley Beal; A visit to the Indiana Pacers, who also bench several of their players, before a game at the New Orleans Pelicans and capped off the season with a homer against Indiana.

Even without Randle, the Knicks would be heavy favorites in at least three of those games.

As for what that might look like, then come the first round playoff series… let’s wait until we know more about Randle’s injury.

Does this hurt Randle’s chances in the NBA?

As stated in our survey of 39 members of the media, quantity is Randel’s best case. In an era of managing loads, he hasn’t missed a game all season. But it’s so late in the schedule that sitting out the final five games probably won’t be much of an issue in the eyes of voters.

Of the 17 forwards who received votes in the poll last week, only three have any chance of catching Randle in total minutes. He averages 25.1 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists shooting 46-34-76.

Randle ended up with the second team in the poll. I imagine his All-NBA shot is still pretty good.

(Photo by Julius Randle and Jimmy Butler: Brad Penner/USA TODAY)