The Knicks already were trying to figure out how to get Julius Randle back to last season’s form when the plans took another hit Thursday afternoon: He was placed in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
The team went only as far as to announce that he would miss Friday’s game at Oklahoma City, but even with the new and reduced time required to be sidelined, Randle will need to isolate on the road for at least six days.
For a night the Knicks could smile, content to come away with back-to-back road wins that look the same in the standings as any other win. There are no demerits for surviving against COVID- and injury-ravaged teams in Minnesota and Detroit. Now they continue on the road to Oklahoma City and Toronto, two teams that are struggling through the same issues.
But the Knicks, as much as they might like to, can’t ignore their own problems, and the biggest one right now came ahead of this testing result. They have to figure out how to get Randle back to the form he displayed last season, when he carried the team on his shoulders, earned All-NBA second-team honors and was named the league’s Most Improved Player.
Like last season, they have managed to navigate the NBA’s health and safety protocols as well as can be expected. Last season they had only three players sidelined, and never at the same time. This season they have been hit hard, but Randle avoided being caught up in it until now, along with fellow starters Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier and Mitchell Robinson. But something seemed off with Randle even before this, and the Knicks have not disclosed what it is.
"He’s nicked up," coach Tom Thibodeau said after a 94-85 win in Detroit on Wednesday. "I think that he’s giving us everything he has. That’s what I love about him. He’s not making any excuses. He just gets out there, he keeps going."
Randle, who was not made available to the media after the game, has not been on the injury report. He has not seemed like the same player as last season, not just in his waning offensive numbers but his movement and effort on the floor. MSG broadcasters have questioned it, speculating there could be a knee injury.
Randle and the other starters were left on the bench for the final 15 minutes Wednesday as the second unit saved them from an embarrassing loss.
With Walker and Fournier added to the team to provide more offense after Randle was shut down in the playoffs by Atlanta last season, there has been some talk about adjusting and adapting to the new starting lineup, but the numbers don’t exactly bear that out. In the first 19 games, Randle shot 42.0% overall and 33.9% from beyond the arc. In the 10 games in which Walker didn’t play, Randle shot 43.2% overall and 35.4% from three. Since Walker returned to the lineup in the last six games, Randle’s numbers have dipped to 38.1% and 25.7%.
In the last 11 games, he has turned the ball over 47 times — never fewer than three in a game. In the last two games, he shot 5-for-20 and 2-for-11 and committed seven turnovers.
Is there something more than just being "nicked up?" And more importantly, can the Knicks repeat last season’s success if Randle doesn’t get right?
"Well, Jules is still trying to find himself," Taj Gibson said. "You know what I’m saying? Jules was phenomenal for us last year. But this year he’s going to do the same thing. He’s our All-Star.
"We’ve got to find ways to get him going a lot easier. But we’ll figure that out in practice. That’s why luckily for us we got a win. We can watch film tomorrow. We can work on execution, work on what we’ve got to do better, try to scratch out another one.
"We’re trying to dig ourselves out of that deficit of losses that we had. And we’re just taking it one game at a time. We feel this is the time, we feel we’ve got a good chance of getting some games back. It’ll come.
"It’s a long season, but he understands what he has to do. He has all of us behind him to help him."
Notes & quotes: Knicks associate coach Johnnie Bryant also has gone into the protocols and was not on the bench in Detroit.