CLEVELAND — The Knicks have come to rely on Julius Randle, and while there might be a night when his shooting touch isn’t on or his temper rises with the officials, there has never been a question whether he would be on the court when the starting lineups are introduced.
And there is no question right now — but for a troubling reason. The Knicks announced that Randle will be sidelined with a sprained left ankle and will be reevaluated in two weeks — which brings the Knicks to the start of the first round of the playoffs.
Randle has played every game this season and totaled more minutes than any player in the NBA other than the Nets’ Mikal Bridges. Up to this point, he is on pace to miss no more than one game in a season for the fourth time in the last eight seasons. But as the Knicks left Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, thinking ahead to Friday’s matchup with their likely first-round playoff opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers, there was no certainty.
Randle limped off the court in the first half Wednesday, struggling to make his way to the locker room with a sprained left ankle that kept him in the trainer’s room for the remainder of the game.
The Knicks had just gotten Jalen Brunson back Wednesday from a sprained right hand protected by a brace and now head down the stretch with more questions.
“It’s part of the game, injuries,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “You deal with it and now just focus on the rehab, get back as soon as you can. We just went through it with Jalen. It’s the same thing, you don’t do it individually. You have to do it collectively. So we understand where we are and what we have to do. But we have more than enough on the bench. I thought our bench was terrific, so next man up, get it done. That’s the way we have to approach it.”
The Knicks did just that Wednesday, beating the Miami Heat with Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes and a pieced-together lineup carrying the load down the stretch. Randle was in the back, Brunson was on the bench and the Knicks still managed to pull the game out, a positive sign for the message that Thibodeau is clinging to as the Knicks head to Cleveland.
“It’s very tough,” Quickley said of the possibility of playing without Randle. “Obviously, [he’s an] All-Star, All-NBA player. He’s been great this year. But when one man’s down, everybody has to try to chip in and do what they can to try and better the team.
“He was good [after the game]. He seemed like he was good. I don’t know the severity of it. I know it was bad just by the reaction when they showed the replay. But he was in good spirits when I talked to him.”
With Randle sidelined and Brunson possibly limited, Friday’s game might not be a proper indication of what to expect if these teams face each other in the playoffs. But there already are a number of issues for the Knicks to deal with — starting with Donovan Mitchell, the subject of their offseason trade-market chase. He eventually was moved from Utah to Cleveland, has played with a chip on his shoulder and could earn first-team All-NBA honors this season.
But the Cavaliers are more than a one-man show, and the Knicks would open up on the road. While they have beaten the Cavs twice in three meetings this season, they haven’t won in Cleveland since Dec. 29, 2020.
While the Knicks are close to clinching a playoff berth, it is a complicated formula. While the magic number technically is one, it is over numerous teams. For example, a Miami loss would eliminate them from catching the Knicks in a two-way tie, but a three-way tie with Miami, the Knicks and the Nets would give Miami the edge as a division winner. Toronto still could win out and tie the Knicks if the Knicks lose all five remaining games, and Toronto has the tiebreaker in head-to-head competition.