The Knicks made it through Tuesday night. They wheezed and sputtered for some time, but they made it. The Lakers, who were without LeBron, took a 10-0 lead. They led by 25 points and had probably just one more run against Frank Vogel, who was giving Anthony Davis a night off because he was sick.
They were back. Avery Bradley began making shots that looked like World B. Free. Russell Westbrook rewinded the clock to 2017. While Carmelo Anthony, an old friend, was struggling with his shooting (46.1 percent from 3-before this 2-for-8), he still managed to dunk with just 1:26 remaining in the third. This tied the game at 79–79.
The Knicks still won, however, with 106 to 100. The Knicks have reached a point in their schedule that they are required to win as much as they can. It is not required by the NBA to register for asterisks wins due to an absence of stars. The second of seven games against potential playoff qualifiers was this game.
“We gathered ourselves,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, “and finished it out well. That’s what we needed to do.”
However, there was an interesting piece to that final. However, the Lakers never led the Knicks. And they were also playing very short. No Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose and Mitch Robinson. That meant for some make-it-up-as-they-went-along rotations. Julius Randle was forced to do an extended work day because of this.
Randle was fouled by Anthony Davis, a Kentucky Wildcat ex-pat. Randle took two short fouls in that four second stretch, just nine minutes remaining in the game. It was his fifth and fourth fouls. Randle was unhappy and went to the benches. Davis sank two foul shots.
Knicks lead, 90-86. The Garden’s antennae crackled. It seemed like the end was near.
Other than that, it was a hilarious thing.
The Knicks ran. Immanuel quickley hit a few 3s. Alec Burks took a shot, and made some free throws. It was 15-7 in less than 4 minutes. It led to a lead of 105-93 Knicks. Randle was still on the bench. And one of the Lakers’ points actually came courtesy of Randle, after his foul-trouble frustration yielded a technical foul.
OK. Let’s take a full stop here.
This isn’t to suggest the Knicks are a better team without their best player. These are not their best players. All you need to do is look at the full box score Randle put up Tuesday — 20 points, 16 rebounds, five assists — to be reminded that he is still, by far, their most essential player. It is not an option.
But so is this: this wasn’t the first time the Knicks have rallied in his absence this year.
That is a problem long-term. It is evident that Randle tries, at times, to carry the entire burden of managing the Knicks. He has a new assortment of supporting players, and while Thibodeau recently labeled as “bulls–t” the notion that sometimes it takes time for players to jell, it’s clearly not. You need patience. It takes patience.
Randle certainly believes that: “That stuff takes time, bro. Once it starts clicking, we’re going to be a really, really good team.”
Tuesday we finally got a full glimpse of what Evan Fournier (26 points, 6-for-9 from 3) is capable of, and it was Randle who set him up for some of those open looks; it hasn’t been easy getting those two on the same page. Same with Kemba Walker: sometimes, he and Randle look like they’ve been playing together for a decade, and sometimes they look like they were introduced in the pregame huddle.
And look: this isn’t all on Randle. Randle must adjust. But so must the new faces. This must be a better collaboration between the two factions. Randle was the alpha dog of the Knicks’ lineup a year ago. There wasn’t anyone to replace him, at least not until Rose came along.
Thibodeau co-created the Knicks. He had the ball in his hands all of the time, and the offense was through him every possession. It was glorious almost every night.
It’s still that way in spasms. It’s just not as frequently. But not yet. The Knicks aren’t a better team without their best player, but they do sometimes play better without him because they aren’t forced to rely on him.
This has to change. This has to change. This year, the Knicks can still do some amazing things. Randle is the only person who can help them reach their goals, and they will not be able to do it without him.