For the first time in eight years, the New York Knicks are taking part in the NBA postseason, with Game One against the Atlanta Hawks scheduled to tip-off at 7:00 PM est.
In what is one of the more anticipated first-round series across the league, one player may determine the outcome: first-time All-Star, and clubhouse leader for Most Improved Player, Julius Randle.
The Knicks’ All-Star has played well against the Hawks all season, averaging 37.3 points, 6.7 assists, and 12.3 rebounds over a three-game regular-season series sweep of Atlanta.
If he can replicate those numbers across a maximum of seven games in the first round, New York will be a hard out.
As of today, just hours ahead of tip-off, there’s no reason yet to think he won’t.
Randle Sounds Off
Prior to Game One on Sunday, Julius Randle sounded confident (via the New York Daily News) in his and the team’s chances against the Hawks, when speaking with reporters.
New York is expecting the Atlanta defense to consistently send double teams at their All-Star forward, as a means of limiting both his scoring and creation on that end of the ball.
Randle didn’t sound concerned when asked about the pending defensive scheme:
If they put two or three on the ball, whatever it is, I’m going to make the pass. Guys are going to knock down shots. And if they don’t [double-team me], good luck.
Luck will certainly have to play a part in whatever the Hawks hope to accomplish. Randle posted 44 and 40 points in his last two meetings with Atlanta on 25-of-43 shooting (58%) from the field.
This approach from an opposing defense won’t be stranger to the sixth-year forward, who in cataclysmic rise over the season has had to deal with double and triple-team defenders on a consistent basis:
Doesn’t matter. Don’t care. That’s for them to figure out. I come into the game prepared, put the work in, put the time and effort into my game. My teammates trust me, coach has empowered me. It’s my job regardless of what the opposing team does, which I really don’t care, it’s my job to go out and make the right plays. And that’s what my teammates entrust me to do.
As he has all season long, Julius Randle is trusting the work he put in that got him here.
It’s a good thing too, because he may end up playing north of 48 minutes every night in this one.
New York’s Rotation Shrinking?
One of the biggest luxuries a star player can have in today’s game is time. Time to rest, that is.
For Julius Randle, he’s found that over the last month and change with rookie Obi Toppin’s surge in play.
But as Marc Berman of the New York Post reports, that may be a thing of the past, at least for the playoffs:
Though combo guard Immanuel Quickley will likely have prominent role off the bench, Knicks lottery pick Obi Toppin may see his minutes reduced, The Post has learned.
The 23-year old played 11 and 12 minutes against the Hawks in two games this season, respectively. Most would consider those high marks for Toppin, whose spot in Tom Thibodeau’s rotation has fluctuated largely.
Berman reports that the Hawks are expecting to see less of New York’s rookie, and more of a veteran face:
Atlanta is expecting less of Toppin as a backup power forward and more minutes from starter Julius Randle and backup center Taj Gibson.
Gibson has been an impactful defender for the Knicks at age 37 and in year 12. With 66 playoff games on his resume, it’s not surprising to think he could see more minutes based on matchup and circumstance.
What that means for Julius Randle remains unclear, outside of an uptick back to near-full game runs. He did finish the regular season as the NBA’s leader in minutes per game, so there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic.
The one absolute remains that if he can’t be himself, or at least who he’s been against the Atlanta Hawks previously this season, then the New York Knicks will have their work cut out for them in this series.
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