The Julius Randle that won the 2021 Most-Improved Player Award and almost single-handedly carried his scrappy Knicks to the four-seed, vanished in the playoffs.
Randle averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists on 41% shooting from three and 45% from the field in the regular season; but in New York’s five-game series with Atlanta, he notched 18, 11 and 4 while shooting 33% from three and below 30% from the field.
It was a drop-off the size of the Grand Canyon. Why?
Well, I think the fact that Randle was playing in his first playoffs has to be mentioned. It’s rare to see first-year playoff players undergo a smooth transition from regular-season success to postseason success in their first go-around; but heck, Devin Booker is new to the postseason and just dropped 47 to eliminate LeBron, so the rule doesn’t always apply.
Anyway, I saw two main reasons for Randle’s struggles.
- Julius himself. After starting the first couple of games poorly, Randle just didn’t look like the same person from the first 72 games. He seemed in his own head about the rough start and he was forcing his offense rather than allowing it to occur within the flow of the game.
- His team isn’t talented. They fight like hell, they scratch and claw for every last rebound and loose ball, and the attitude of their approach is what powered them to a 41-31 record, not their roster.
Aside from Randle, Derrick Rose was New York’s only other offensive creator. His career has turned into a terrific comeback story — especially since he’s reunited with his old boy Thibs to re-ignite their Chicago flame. However, if 32-year-old Rose and Randle are the pillars of your offense, scoring in the playoffs is going to be tough.
As the postseason ramps up so does the defense. Atlanta isn’t a particularly great defensive team, but they’re solid with Clint Capela anchoring things in the paint. With New York’s limited shooting ability and general offensive horsepower on the perimeter, the Hawks were able to swarm Randle anytime he was in the paint.
That elbow space he likes to go to work from was too crowded. Defenders would leave an RJ Barrett or Elfrid Payton open from three to make life harder on Randle. With Barrett, Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks not shooting well from three in the series, Randle had no outlets and a swarm of defenders gnawed at him during every touch.
He was his best when he either got the ball with good position on the block or when he got it on the perimeter and made quick decisions. His drives off kick-outs were solid. Whenever the ball got moving around the court and Randle had it on the perimeter, he was able to quickly make the choice to drive and kick to someone else or go the basket or step out for a jumper.
Like on this play: the ball moves around the three-point line and Randle makes a quick move to the rim after receiving the pass.
? REVERSE pic.twitter.com/UCS9LVPFuH
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) June 3, 2021
So in that sense, I liked what he was able to do when the ball got moving and the offense ran as it did during the Knicks’ big winning streak near the end of the season. It was when the possessions slowed down and left Randle standing with the ball while his teammates stared that was painful to watch.
The series was an immense underperformance by Randle, and while he needs to get better and I think he will, the high expectations for him are a result of the massive leap he’s already taken. This New York team had a special vibe, and Randle (and several other ‘Cats) were at the helm of this surprising run.
Those screaming fans in Madison Square Garden are thinking Julius Randle, Most Valuable Player, heading into next year. Exciting future for Julius and the rest of the Knicks.