Julius Randle (Bill Moore photo)

Knicks All-Star forward Julius Randle came into Game 5 of his team’s Eastern Conference semifinals playoff matchup versus the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden as the emotionally charged home fan base’s scapegoat. The No. 5 seed Knicks were down 3-1 and staring at being eliminated by the No. 8 seed Heat in what was a distressing and unforeseen circumstance for their devoted followers.  

By his own admission, Randle’s cumulative postseason performance had been sub-par. In eight games prior to Game 5, the 6-8 power forward, who sat out the Knicks’ 108-101 Game 1 loss to the Heat due to a sprained left ankle, was averaging 16.7 points shooting a meager 34.1% overall and acutely deficient 27.1% on 3-point attempts. Randle’s  9.6 rebounds were roughly the same as his regular season average of 10 per game but the 2021 All-NBA Second Team selection had seen a precipitous decline in his offensive production and efficiency. 

The Knicks and their committed fans were looking for the version of Randle that put up 25.1 points per game and shot at a 46% clip in 77 games entering the playoffs. He was getting less opportunities from the foul line as well, dipping from 6.9 shots and 5.2 makes to 4.5 and 3.1 respectively. Then, after fouling out of Game 4 on Monday night in Miami with 3:08 remaining in the fourth quarter with a solid stat line of 39 minutes played, 20 points on 8-13 shooting and nine rebounds, Randle gave an assessment of the Knicks’ 109-101 setback, specifically the Heat grabbing seven offensive rebounds to their one in the final quarter, that stirred anger in the squad’s exacerbated supporters.  

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“Maybe they wanted it more. I don’t know,” the 28-year-old with nine years of NBA experience said matter-of-factly. It was a tone deaf and revealing comment, one that simultaneously could be construed as defeatist and detached. It wasn’t the message that needed to be sent regardless of the intent. Randle not choosing his words more prudently stoked Knicks fans’ emotional arsenal with more ammunition to demand that the franchise’s chief decision makers, namely CEO James Dolan and president Leon Rose, rid the team of a perceived problem. 

What struck a deep chord for those that have closely watched the Knicks this season is the fact that their exceeding effort and intensity have been their calling card. They have been consistently more physical and outworked their opponents from tip-off to the ending buzzer, grinding them into submission. Until meeting the Heat, a team led by superstar forward Jimmy Butler and directed by 52-year-old head coach Eric Spolestra, one of the best ever by any measure. Miami is the mirror image of the Knicks in the relentless physicality and dogged energy with which they play. However, the distinction between them has been evident.

The Heat have the offensive balance and 3-point shooting the Knicks glaringly lack. After Game 5, the Knicks were hitting just 28.2% on 3-point tries in the playoffs and only 43.2% on all shot attempts. Their frequently stagnant player and ball movement in favor of isolation sets which have Jalen Brunson, Randle and RJ Barrett dominating the ball, contracts the floor instead of optimally spreading it, ceding strategic and schematic advantages to the Heat’s swarming defense. Brunson had a game-high 32 points and Barrett 24 Game 4. 

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau, who has implored his players to cut, screen and pass with more crispness and fluidity throughout this season has not seen it manifest versus the Heat. Meanwhile, he had made minimal discernible adjustments in the four games before last night to counter the Heat’s superior execution and collective abilities.  

Perhaps the most confounding issue is that he had not played guard Evan Fournier in the series despite the Knicks dire 3-point shooting. Fournier holds the franchise’s single-season mark of 241 3-pointers made, set a year ago.  The 30-year-old Fournier, who started 80 games last season, has been buried on the bench this year, appearing in only 27 games. But it’s plausible to argue his potential offensive efficiency would outweigh his possible defensive liability. 

Following Game 4, Thibodeau took a pragmatic view in stating the obvious of the Knicks’ dilemma. “You’ve got to win four to win a series,” he said. “So, all we’re thinking about is win the next game. Go quarter by quarter. Win the first quarter, win the second quarter, win the third, win the fourth. And then the next day we’ll think about the next day.”

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