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This is the kind of basketball that you get when everybody plays as a team. It’s the kind of basketball Knicks fans have been asking for all season. And it could become the kind of basketball the Knicks can get more consistently if they eventually decide to move on from Julius Randle. The Knicks, last night, played hard, fast, and smart basketball in their 111-103 comeback victory over the Heat. And this was after a night where they defeated the Hornets very impressively, too.
Not to say that the Knicks will win out every game they play without Randle going forward–they still have lots of work to do. But clearly with him they are not winning either. The difference is however, in these games without their starting power forward–where they are now 2-3–the Knicks seem to have more energy and fluidity with how they play. Even during that stretch midseason when he went onto COVID protocol list, I saw some good things. Last night was no different in Miami, Florida.
That closing unit for most of the fourth quarter was a breath of the freshest air. Immanuel Quickley (23 points) played catalyst as the point guard and did a little everything; Deuce McBride (five points, five assists) made key stops and key baskets, as did his rookie classmate, Quentin Grimes (nine points); Jericho Sims (six points, seven rebounds) looked like a younger Tyson Chandler on the glass; and veteran Taj Gibson (five points, three rebounds) contributed with a major stop defensively as well. Three prospects, one sophomore, and one veteran. That was the recipe.
When Randle takes the floor you know what type of basketball you are getting. On offense you’re going to be playing that slower tempo, halfcourt style with him at the top on the ball. Defensively, teams are going to run on the Knicks and make them work. But last night they were able to keep up because the younger, smaller, and more athletic players were able to contribute. They play with a faster pace, make quicker, snappier decisions, and have this sense of resiliency to them that is unmatched.
The defense sparked this comeback. As the Knicks were down 16 not a minute into the fourth, they began to clamp down. Their help defense was on point, they made timely rotations out on the perimeter, guys were hedging to help from the weakside, it was very 2021 Knicks-esque. Offensively, the team was generating some excellent looks and you have to thank both IQ and Deuce for that. Four of Deuce’s five assists came in the final frame, and Quickley was doing an exceptional job of hunting mismatches for a more efficient chance. Both of them ran the break on and off ball very well, too. It was so much better than watching a point forward run offense.
The bigs were great, too! Obi Toppin (15 points, eight rebounds) continues to shine in Randle’s place. It was his third consecutive double-figure scoring effort. There are a few aspects Obi brings to that power forward position that you don’t get from Randle. With his athleticism, he runs the open court impeccably, getting the Knicks countless looks on leakouts. In halfcourt offense, he’s always cutting off the ball. That not only creates spacing but it keeps the defense off-balance and on their feet. He may not be a great defender (neither is Julius) but he puts effort into his rotating and he is always competing. The other Knicks feed off that style.
Also, Obi has even started to knock down his jumper as of late. You can see the confidence as he connected on two more triples and even pulled up baseline for a mid-range late second half last night. I’ve been saying that he needs to get more minutes. He both thrives with more playing time and when he gets good point guard play. Whenever it is Randle does return, I think shaving five minutes off his playing time, five off Taj, and handing 10 more to Obi will get you performances like this at least more often. The Knicks are not making the playoffs, and they are not making the play-in, so it is time to get real in these final handful of games and give the sophomore a shot to develop his game once and for all.
Sims picked up three huge rebounds in the fourth quarter and one of them was in a crucial turning point in my opinion. There was a bit over a minute left and the Knicks were up five. IQ missed a three from the right elbow, and Sims, in heavy traffic, leaped up to grab the board, and then tossed it back out to RJ Barrett (18 points, eight rebounds, four assists) who connected on a pair of free-throws. The lead stretched from five to seven and that to me took the air out of FTX Arena and sealed it.
RJ did have a rough outing, though. He struggled with ball control and had five turnovers, he had issues defending Jimmy Butler (30 points) all night, and did not shoot well, going 5-for-17 overall, and 2-for-10 from three. He forced way too many jumpers and rarely attacked the hoop which has been how he’s thrived the last several months or so. I think he’s starting to see what being the best player on the team looks like, as he faced more double-teams than he was used to last night. The Heat trapped RJ at the top early and forced him to make reads on the fly. But for a young player who is growing, you can still call it a positive that on a down night, RJ finishes with 18, eight, and four.
With Randle, the Knicks are 30-39 and without him they’re now 2-3. So when Knicks fans talk about the team being better off without Randle, we don’t exactly mean they are going to show that right away. The rational argument is that they’ll be better off long-term. I think right now we are just curious to get a longer look at this unit without him, and Knicks fans are just happy with what we’re seeing.
To me it’s not the drop-off that bothers me with Randle, as much as that does hurt. It’s the energy he fails to bring sometimes. Choosing not to play defense, choosing to settle for lazier shots, choosing to stand around when he’s not on the ball, and most importantly, choosing to create drama is a problem. It’s the unnecessary scenes he often creates, arguing with either the media, the fans, officials, opposing players, or his own coaches and teammates at times. I believe the chemistry on and off the court will eventually benefit without Randle tremendously.
All in all, this was a very fun one to watch, as was the win against Charlotte on the back-to-back. It’s a shame that it always has to take an injury for Thibodeau to give his young players more playing time in a second half where they were never going anywhere. Next up the Knicks will face Detroit in a Sunday matinee.