Sunday night at Madison Square Garden seemed like the perfect stage for a Julius Randle appreciation party. The 15,000 fans in attendance were able to shout their approval for all that he accomplished this season. And all they needed to make it complete, to fulfill the MVP chants, would be another Randle star turn and a win.
Instead, Randle was an afterthought on the night, failing in the first postseason game of his seven-year career. He scored 15 points, shot 6-for-23 and had an empty final minute — bricking a three-pointer and then not getting a shot off in time in the final second.
His star counterpart, Atlanta point guard Trae Young, also making his playoff debut, delivered everything that Randle couldn’t — a 32-point, 10-assist performance capped by a game-winning floater over Randle with nine-tenths of a second left. By the end, he drew more attention from the Garden crowd than Randle, albeit with a much less affectionate tone.
On Monday, after watching video and beginning to work his way toward Game 2, Randle insisted that he was ready for a second chance to make a first postseason impression.
"I think we were really encouraged this morning," he said. "I know myself, when I woke up this morning, I was happy. I was laughing. I enjoy this, just being uncomfortable. Or I don’t even know if it’s being uncomfortable. I just enjoy this process.
"This is fun. This is what the playoffs are about, just solving problems or issues, whatever it is . . . When we all saw each other today, our group morale, everybody was really encouraged. We just felt good. That was encouraging to see. I think it’ll translate to the court, but we do understand we have to have a sense of urgency."
The urgency must be there because even if Atlanta sometimes feels like a home away from home for the Knicks, they don’t want to head out on the road in a two-game hole. Any effort to turn that around certainly starts with Randle returning to the form he displayed this season.
Though he took 23 shots, the immediate takeaway from Randle and coach Tom Thibodeau was that he actually passed on good opportunities. Thibodeau hinted that Randle may have overthought the process.
"Just got to bring energy," Thibodeau said. "We trust him. He can score a lot of different ways. He can also beat you with the pass. So the game’s going to tell you what to do. He’s seen that defense before. Just make sure you’re looking for your reads, play with energy, run the floor, do the things that make us successful all year long."
Randle said the Hawks didn’t throw any defenses at him that he hadn’t already seen or been prepared for in this series.
"I’m encouraged," he said. "Shots, opportunity, challenge, that’s what I’m encouraged by. When you’re trying to figure out how to solve a problem, it’s a process. For me, that’s what really makes this whole thing fun. It’s the first to four wins. It’s going to be a challenge throughout the series and I’m looking forward to it.
"It’s the playoffs. So they were locked in. Throughout the course of the season in games, you can make mistakes . . . but the mistakes you make are limited when it comes to the playoffs. That can be the difference between winning and losing. I understand that. They understand that. So, I mean, they were locked in.
"But like I said, I don’t think they did anything that I haven’t seen before this year or that will make me feel like I have to adjust, readjust, whatever. I’ll make my adjustments, make my reads quicker, come back better next time."