The Knicks survived Tuesday night. They wheezed and spat for a while, but they survived. They jumped for an early 10-0 lead over the LeBron-Les Lakers. He took a 25-point lead, and was probably another 8-2 run away from Frank Vogel, who was taking a sick and Anthony Davis off the night.
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The Lakers are back. Avery Bradley won the World B. Started making shots like free. Russell Westbrook turned the clock back in 2017. And when old friend Carmelo Anthony hit an icy patch with his shooting (he was shooting 3 to 46.1 percent before this 2-for-8) he hit a dunk at home with a 1:26. The third one to level the game 79-79.
Still, the Knicks won, 106-100. They are at a part of their schedules when they need to win by any means, and there is no need to register with star games won because of the star’s absence in the NBA bylaws. It was the second game of seven games against potential playoff qualifiers.
“We gathered ourselves,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, “and it ended well. That’s what we should have done.”
However, there was a curious piece to that close. The Knicks never let the Lakers take the lead. And the Knicks were playing even less: no Derrick Rose, no Taj Gibson, no Mitchell Robinson. This was meant with some make-me-up-they-they-went-twirl. This meant, in theory, an extra-long work shift for Julius Randall.
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Except, in a four-second stretch only nine minutes into the game, Randall picked up two quick fouls while defending his fellow Kentucky Wildcat ex-pat, Anthony Davis. They were his fourth and fifth fouls. Randall went to the bench, not happily. Davis hit two foul shots.
The Knicks led, 90-86. The garden antenna was broken. Doom seemed imminent.
Except for one funny thing.
Knicks went on a run. Emmanuel Quickley paired the 3s. Alec Burks makes a shot and a few free throws. It was a 15-7 jump in less than four minutes. It was a 105-93 Knicks lead. All this with Randall on the bench. And one of the Lakers’ points actually came courtesy of Randall, when his foul-tough disappointment was followed by a technical glitch.
Ok. Let’s take a full stop here.
That doesn’t mean the Knicks are a better team without their best player. They are not. All you have to do is look at Randall’s full box score on Tuesday – 20 points, 16 rebounds, five assists – to remind him that he is, still, their most essential player. This is a non-negotiable truth.
But this is it: This wasn’t the first time the Knicks have rallied in his absence this year.
And that, long term, is an issue. It’s clear now that Randall, on some nights, tries to take on every burden the Knicks face. They have a new classification of supporting players, and while Thibodeau recently labeled them as “Bulls-tee”, the notion that it sometimes takes time for players to go to jail is clearly not. Is. It takes patience. It will take patience.
Randall certainly believes that: “That stuff takes time, bro. Once it starts clicking, we’re going to be a really good team.”
On Tuesday we finally got a full glimpse of Evan Fournier (26 points, 6-for-93 to 9), and it was Randall who set him up for some open looks; It hasn’t been easy getting them both on the same page. Same with Kemba Walker: Sometimes, she and Randall look like they’ve been playing together for a decade, and sometimes they look like they were introduced in a pregame huddle.
And behold: it’s not all on Randall. He has to adjust, sure, but so do new faces. Both factions need to make this work better than that. A year ago, Randall could assert himself every night as the undisputed alpha dog in the Knicks lineup because there was no one to challenge that role, at least until Rose came along.
The Knicks was his creation, Thibodeau was his co-writer. With the ball constantly in his hands, the offense went into his possession. It was the most wonderful night.
Still the same in cramps. Just not that many times. Not now. The Knicks aren’t a better team without their best player, but they sometimes play better without him because they aren’t forced to rely on him.
It has to be developed. It will have to be changed. The Knicks are still able to do some great things this year. They’ll only get there in Randall’s company, not in spite of him.