The New York Knicks finishing the truncated 2020-21 regular season on a 47-win pace, good enough for the East’s No. 4 seed, caught everyone by surprise. Julius Randle’s sudden All-NBA leap was equally unforeseen. Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive developments. The Knicks are what they are — and we’ll get to what, exactly, they are — because of Randle being just enough of an offensive savior to survive on the strength of a top-five defense.
That correlation works the opposite way, too. Randle has been awful in his first postseason, and so have the Knicks, who lost again to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday to fall behind 3-1 in their first-round series with the potential elimination game looming on Wednesday.
Through the first three games, Randle shot 24 percent (13-for-54) from the field. Among players who’ve taken at least 50 shots, that was the worst three-game start to a postseason in the shot-clock era. Throw in R.J. Barrett’s 13-for-38, and New York’s best two players — or at least the two players we look at as the truest barometer of what this team might, or might not, become — shot 28 percent as New York fell into a 2-1 hole.
The Game 4 numbers look better on paper:
- Randle: 23 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists
- Barrett: 12 points, six rebounds, four assists
Together, Barrett and Randle shot 15-for-34 from the field on Sunday. They were a collective minus-24 in their 70 minutes. If numbers don’t always tell the story, these ones, through four games of this series, do. Randle isn’t even close to as bad as he’s looked in this series. But he and Barrett are clearly not ready to be the top players on a team that expects to be something more than a nice regular-season story. There’s little clarity as to whether they ever will be.
And that’s the point of this. The Knicks are a fun team to root for, and they had a fantastic season against the bar of having been a national embarrassment for basically the last decade. But when you raise that bar to a postseason level, reality hits quick.
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Barrett made significant strides this season, but the jury remains out as to whether he can be more than a complementary piece. The same can be said as it pertains to whether Randle is actually a bankable star. He’s not great at any one thing. The fear was always a shooting regression, which would render a lot of his progress moot. Right now, all we know for sure is he had a great regular season only to go in the tank when a postseason defense is focused on him.
This is a small sample and Randle’s first trip to the postseason. Cut him some slack. Also, Tom Thibodeau deserves at least a bit of blame for Randle’s offensive nosedive. No adjustments have been made throughout this series. The Knicks mostly give Randle the ball with little pace to their attack, he sizes things up, maybe gets a ball screen, and tries to self create. The Hawks are cutting off penetration, and his pull-up jumpers are bricking.
You can say this performance is just bad shooting luck at the worst possible time, and surely there’s some truth in that. But look back over Randle’s career, and there’s a lot more evidence that he isn’t a great shooter than anything suggesting that he is. A lot more evidence that he isn’t a star than he is. Same with Barrett, whose future prospects are predominantly tied to his jumper. And look at the bottom line: The Knicks, even amid a career season for Randle and a really good season for Barrett, were just the 24th-ranked offense in the league.
They won on the strength of their defense, and there was even some shooting luck baked into that. They packed the paint and prioritized collective rim protection, and the result in the regular season was surrendering a lot of 3-pointers, especially from the corner. Teams just missed a lot of those shots.
Per Cleaning the Glass, teams shot a collective 33.8 percent from beyond the arc against the Knicks in the regular season, the worst mark against any defense in the league, and 35.1 percent on corner 3-pointers, the second-worst mark in the league. The Hawks, in part because of Trae Young’s pick-and-roll creation and slingshot passes to shooters, are getting those same shots but making more (over 47 percent from the corner) of them. Atlanta holds a 27-point advantage from 3-point range over the series. That’s not a huge disparity over four games, but it’s enough to further bury an already behind-the-eight-ball offensive team like New York.
That said, New York’s defense has been statistically fine against Atlanta — sixth among teams still alive in the postseason. But the old adage that defense wins championships is just that. Old. These days, you have to put the ball in the basket to be a real postseason threat. Ask the Miami Heat what it looks like when your best player doesn’t score. When 32-year-old Derrick Rose is your bail-out bucket-getter, happy trails.
The series isn’t over. There’s still time to reshape this narrative and make articles like this one look premature, if not outright foolish. But I wouldn’t bet on it. You can pull up all the advanced stats you want, but in the end, there’s a certain amount of shallowness to basketball. It doesn’t have to be as deep as we sometimes make it. The Hawks have better players than the Knicks. They have more offensive options who can score in more ways. They have better shooters, better playmakers, more versatile defenders, a better big man.
I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again: Expectations are the root of frustration. If your expectations are in order, you can live with the results. But it’s when you get overly amped on a team like the Knicks, and a player like Randle, that you set yourself up for disappointment.
It’s tempting to do. The Knicks are a feel-good story and should remain one no matter how this series ends. The Garden was alive in Games 1 and 2. Randle was spectacular this season. What fun is being fan if you can’t believe in the improbable? I get it. I’m a Northern California kid who wanted to believe this year’s Warriors had a conference finals run in them. But deep down, I knew they didn’t. Same goes for the Knicks. They’re just not as good a team as most of us want them to be. For now, they’re just way better than they used to be.