Sports

Julius Randle, Tom Thibodeau need to flip Knicks script again

ATLANTA — It has taken a week for the Knicks to reach their first critical mass. Seven days. Three games. A week ago, Sunday morning brought effervescence and optimism, the likes of which have been in rare supply around Madison Square Garden. Even in a jaded basketball city, it was hard to contain the fertile imagination of a fan base:

“With this team, ANYTHING is possible.”

“In Julius we trust!”

“#ThibsForMayor2021”

Oh yeah. You give a Knicks fan a little bit of hope, a little dash of promise, they’ll ride that horse like it’s the back stretch at Aqueduct. And yet … none of those things seemed nearly as Pollyannaish as they do this morning.

The Knicks had allowed you to believe in the power of possibility again.

Julius Randle had shown enough across 72 regular-season games that it was feasible — likely, even — that he could shoulder the load for another five to seven games, at least, to ferry the Knicks through a first-round series with the Hawks in which they’d get Game 7 at home (if necessary).

Julius Randle and Tom Thibodeau
Julius Randle and Tom Thibodeau
AP; Corey Sipkin

Tom Thibodeau absolutely was the toast of the town, a basketball whisperer who had restored dignity and standards to a franchise that had so badly lost its way so deep in the woods it felt like Paulie and Christopher chasing the Russian in the “Pine Barrens” episode of “The Sopranos.”

Now?

Seven days and three games later, all but the most unconditional Knicks fans look at the Hawks and seem to be getting their concession speeches ready, look at the Knicks and suddenly see only warts where there used to be dimples.

Seven days and three games later it is Trae Young, not Julius Randle, who has seized the series narrative, taken a star turn on his first playoff stage, who has shrugged off the spite and spittle of Garden fans and thrilled Hawks fans and proven the power that one great player can provide a team famished for guidance. Randle … well, not so much.

Seven days and three games later, some of the old questions that have shadowed Thibodeau his whole career seem to be rising again from the dust: “Great regular-season coach, but the playoffs?” “Is he too stubborn?” “Can his team find an advanced postseason gear?”

Seven days. Three games. And here we are.

“This is normal,” Thibodeau insisted Saturday. “This is the playoffs. It’s being intense, the ups-and-downs, navigate everything. We have to do all the things that have gotten us here. There’s an intensity to it. Stay focused on how we can improve and get better.”

What the Knicks are left with at the doorstep to Game 4 of this best-of-seven first-round series is this: an ardent belief in each other, in their coach and in their star that has been unshaken all year. For most of that year, it has been easy to hop on that train because the results spoke for themselves. This week has tested that.

This week has muted much of the good will that Randle built up this year. One bad game, you can explain away. Two bad games … it can happen to anyone. Three? Randle is shooting 24.1 percent for the series — not a typo, 24.1, as in 13-for-54. He is the Knicks’ best player. Take the best player on all 16 playoff teams, have them shoot 13-for-54, how would those teams look? How would the Hawks look if Young were 13-for-54 (as opposed to 30-for-62?)

The week has focused a glaring spotlight on Thibodeau. You won’t ever hear anyone in these parts bemoan how hard the Knicks played during the season — on the whole, substantially harder than their opponents. Still, the fear of many longtime Thibodeau-philes was that once the playoffs begin, sweat equity means less and less. Everyone plays hard in the playoffs. So far, it’s hard to argue that.

So that leaves the Knicks, Sunday afternoon, 1 o’clock, in a fundamental battle to save their season. They cannot be eliminated in Game 4. But a loss sure will make it feel that way. A loss would mean a 3-1 hole, and no Knicks team has ever overcome a 3-1 hole. Maybe the momentum is too great already. Maybe we already know where this is headed.

Only the Knicks can change that. Randle must play better. Thibodeau can reveal an ace he has been hiding up his sleeve, figure a way to slow Young and stop allowing the Hawks a pleasing parade of wide-open 3s. Maybe the playoff Knicks can more closely resemble the regular-season Knicks. If so, we can all have a very different conversation starting Monday.


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