Knicks still need more from Julius Randle as Game 4 defeat pushes NY to brink of playoffs elimination

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Julius Randle looks up hands on hips 5/30
Julius Randle looks up hands on hips 5/30

After the Knicks' Game 4 loss to the Hawks on Sunday in Atlanta, Julius Randle was asked what he's learned about postseason basketball thus far.

“The attention to game plan, the adjustments, the emotional roller coaster. All that type of stuff,” Randle said after the Knicks’ 113-96 loss. “For me it’s great. Most people maybe get discouraged, whatever it is. I just try to stay even keel. I get encouraged by learning because it’s only going to make me better. Last year, coming from where I came from, the experience of last season, coming back this season was a learning experience. This whole postseason is going to be a learning experience. And I’ll come back better, be better next game and whoever long we play. It’s not over.”

There’s a long list of reasons why New York trails Atlanta, 3-1, in this first round series. It's fair to say that Randle's shooting is at or near the top of that list.

The 2020-21 Most Improved Player has missed 53 of his 73 shot attempts in the series. He's 8 for 24 from beyond the arc.

Those numbers are ugly, but solely blaming Randle for what’s happened is reductive.

Knicks not named Randle shot 7-for-25 from beyond the arc on Sunday. Overall, they’re shooting 33.8 percent from beyond the arc in the postseason. They hit 39 percent of their threes in the regular season.

The Knicks ranked No. 1 in opponent 3-point percentage (33.7 percent) in the regular season. They’re allowing Atlanta to hit 38 percent of its threes in this series.

Alec Burks is 6-for-20 in the last two games. Taj Gibson has been fantastic, but Nerlens Noel’s been limited by an ankle injury. That’s hurt New York.

Still, in the playoffs, when your star player is being outplayed by the opponent’s star player, your star is going to get a bulk of the criticism.

That’s how it’s been for Randle. And it’s just part of the job when you’re the face of a franchise.

It’s worth noting that there were signs of improvement for Randle on Sunday.

Tom Thibodeau had wanted Randle and the Knicks to make quicker decisions against Atlanta's defense.

May 30, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) shoots over Atlanta Hawks forward Onyeka Okongwu (17) during the second half in game four in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
May 30, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) shoots over Atlanta Hawks forward Onyeka Okongwu (17) during the second half in game four in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The coach credited Randle for making the adjustment on Sunday.

"I liked a lot of the plays that Julius made today," Thibodeau said. "I felt this all along, it's sort of Julius' makeup as he goes through things, he always gets better and better. That's who he is. And so as long as he is making quick decisions, good things are going to happen ... I thought he did a great job with that. We have to play an all-around game though. We have to play both sides of the ball. We have to rebound the ball. We have to play defense. But I like a lot of the looks we got particularly in the first half."

Randle's improved decision-making didn't help the Knicks' bottom line. The Hawks reeled off a 15-5 run to start the second half and a 20-10 run to end the third quarter. Those stretches crushed New York.

Randle finished with 23 points on 7-for-19 shooting and added 10 rebounds and seven assists. He also had five turnovers.

"The big thing for me was to be more decisive," Randle said. "Misses and makes really don't matter. Just continue to trust the work I put in. I was more decisive and have something to build on. Obviously, you want to come out with the win. You're never satisfied with an individual performance. You want to win games. I'd rather play bad and win. Regardless, I have to be a lot better. The team has to be a lot better. It's a learning experience. Regardless, we have Game 5 at home. That's all I can focus on."

Randle's point about learning through experience shouldn't be dismissed. He said several times this season that he learned a lot in his first season in New York. Through hard work in the offseason, he came back a different player in 2020-21.

So maybe Randle will be better in the playoffs as he gains more experience.

But you also can't ignore what you've seen from Randle so far in his first postseason.

How much it factors into the Knicks' approach with Randle this offseason remains to be seen.

After his strong play in the 2020-21 regular season, the Knicks had obviously been fully committed to trying to keeping Randle beyond his current contract. It's unknown if the club preferred to offer Randle an extension this offseason or re-sign him as an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Will the Knicks change their thinking after Randle's play in the past four games? I doubt it.

But will the last four games to factor into the way they approach a potential extension for Randle? And will it factor into how they approach building the rest of the roster?

That's something worth keeping an eye on.

These are issues for August, though.

At the moment, the Knicks need to worry about winning Game 5 at home to extend the series and change the narrative on what -- so far -- has been a mostly woeful playoff run.

May 26, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari (8) moves the ball against New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) during the first half at Madison Square Garden.
May 26, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari (8) moves the ball against New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) during the first half at Madison Square Garden.

A few other notes from the game:

STRONG START FOR ROSE, QUIET SECOND HALF:

Derrick Rose started at point guard again on Sunday. Again, he helped the Knicks get off to a better start. He had 16 points and three assists in 20 first-half minutes, one of the main reasons New York trailed by just five at the half. But Rose didn’t have the same impact in the second half. He missed five of his six shots; New York was outscored by 17 in his 12 second-half minutes.

HUNTING TRAE:

Trae Young had three fouls in the first half but didn’t pick up a foul in 17 second-half minutes. He had 12 points and five assists in the final two quarters.

Before the game, Thibodeau was asked if the Knicks could target Young more on the defensive end.

“Well, we’ve done that. So their [coverage] for him, they’ve done a good job with that,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of dribble handoffs. We have done the random pick and roll with him. So they’re trying to keep the matchup. We’re twisting, so re-screening with him.”

Young is averaging 27.5 points and 10 assists in the series. He’s hitting 47 percent of his field-goal attempts and is averaging 2.8 turnovers through four games.

NOEL IS A ‘WARRIOR’:

Gibson has been strong for the Knicks throughout the series. But Noel’s ankle injury has hurt the Knicks on defense. Noel defended the rim well for New York all season and was a driving force behind their top-ranked defense.

He’s been limited by an ankle injury he suffered in Game 1.

“Nerlens is a warrior. He’s given us everything he has. We have great belief in him. He’s nicked up but he’s out there fighting. The shot blocking, the rim protection is critical so give us what you have," Obi Toppin said.