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Julius Randle’s presence boosts Knicks in Game 1: ‘We all know you’re gonna get everything he has’

It wasn’t Willis Reed walking through the tunnel, but Julius Randle’s presence Saturday provided the Knicks a boost beyond the box score.

Labeled a game-time decision before the opening tip because of a sprained ankle, Randle logged 33 minutes Saturday and closed the 101-97 victory with a clutch offensive rebound.

“We all know you’re gonna get everything he has,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Julius played in 77 games until he sprained his ankle. He practiced everyday. What you see in the games, what you see in practice — you know you’re gonna get whatever he has. And I knew if he could go, he would go. That’s Julius. And so, I thought he had a very strong start to the game. And the rebound was huge. Huge.”

With a two-point lead and just six seconds remaining, Randle ran from the 3-point line and grabbed the offensive board over 7-footer Evan Mobley. He kicked out the ball and the Knicks iced the game at the foul line.

Otherwise, it wasn’t the cleanest performance from Randle — he missed 13 of his 20 shots while committing five turnovers — but the consensus from the Knicks was he became pivotal to victory.

“He’s a presence,” Jalen Brunson said. “It may not be shooting or whatever it was — obviously he can do all that. But that offensive rebound was huge. The little things that he has committed himself to do, it’s been fantastic. It helps us. Some of the things that he does may not go on the stat sheet but it’s big time.”

The Knicks tried to keep Randle’s status under wraps in the week leading up to the game, claiming he wasn’t cleared for contact while giving non-updates about his recovery.

Ultimately, seventeen days since the ankle turn was enough for Randle to suit up for the playoffs and drop 19 points with 10 rebounds.

“Every day I got significantly better,” Randle said about the recovery. “I felt like by the time Saturday got here I’ll be fine. At first I didn’t think I could do it.”

He clearly wasn’t 100 percent, and conditioning was an issue after such a long layoff. But the shot was falling in the beginning. He nailed his first shot attempt — a pull-up 3-pointer about two and a half minutes into the game — and followed up with a breakaway lay-up on the next possession. He dropped a team-high 16 points in the first half before cooling off.

“See me breathing out there today?” Randle said. “I was tired as hell for sure.”

Thibodeau said he was confident Randle could fall back on his built-in fitness. But the substitution pattern was different from the start. After playing entire first quarters during the regular season, Randle was removed for Obi Toppin just five minutes after tipoff.

He finished with 33 minutes, which is below Randle’s season average.

“We talked about it before the game. If he needed to come out, come out,” Thibodeau said. “Get a breather and get back in. So that’s basically what we were doing. And it worked out

“There’s guidelines for minutes,” the coach added. “We know what his normal minutes are. So if he needs it low, we’ll get him out. Let him get his breather, get him back in.”