ATLANTA — While Trae Young was subjected to profane chants, criticism from New York City’s mayor and even spit on by a since-banned fan at Madison Square Garden, there was nothing but love for Julius Randle.
But while Young responded with a pair of sensational performances, Randle struggled through his first two playoff games. Handed his Most Improved Player trophy and serenaded with "M-V-P" chants from the home crowd, he struggled through the adoration and the Hawks defense.
Randle averaged 37.3 points in the Knicks’ regular-season sweep of the Hawks, the most points he scored against any team this season. But through two games in New York he has been a shadow of that player.
"Regular season and postseason are two different things," Atlanta center Clint Capela said. "Right now, it’s all about them. So our focus is definitely different."
Randle scored 15 points in each game, but that doesn’t reflect the troubles he went through to get there. He shot 6-for-23 in Game 1 as the Hawks stole homecourt advantage. In Game 2 it was 5-for-16 shooting and he is a combined 4-for-13 from three-point range after shooting 41.1% in the regular season.
He also turned the ball over seven times with only eight assists after averaging 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists in the regular season.
"I mean, it’s everything I expected, honestly," Randle said. "Just the intensity level, every possession matters. Just the game plan, the game plan discipline, so it’s everything I expected. You’ve just got to keep adjusting, keep learning, keep growing from it, and keep getting better. So that’s what I expect to do. As the series goes on I’ll continue to get better."
While the Knicks struggle to find an answer to Young’s playmaking and scoring, the Hawks have contained Randle by repeatedly sending different defenders - and multiple defenders - at him.
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau repeatedly has preached since preseason that the game will tell you the proper play, reading the defense and responding with the proper action is the key. The Hawks have tried to make sure that the decision for Randle is to send the ball to someone else.
Randle said he is fine with that, and if that means less scoring, then that’s what he’ll do.
"Definitely," Randle said. "I think that’s what’s made me have the year that I had this year is regardless what other teams are trying to do just making the right plays. So I’ve got to make sure that I’m doing that throughout the emotions and ups and downs of the game, just keeping an even keel out there, making the right plays."
Maybe he’ll be better suited, the adrenaline flowing less, playing in Atlanta, where emotions will be diminished. But that may not be the case because Knicks fans have long filled State Farm Arena, something Randle thinks could happen again.
"I’m sure we will, even though our home crowd obviously has been amazing," he said. "It’ll be different on the road, obviously. But I feel like we’ll still have fans there regardless. Regardless of the crowd, we have to come with the mindset of just being the harder-playing team. we’ve got to execute better. Everything we’ve done all year that’s made us win games, that’s helped us win games – we just have to have that same mindset. And just have it at a higher intensity level."
One thing that has eased the struggles for Randle is that the Knicks took Game 2 and evened the series and also that rookie Obi Toppin, who has spelled him in the series, has performed well.
"He’s been great," Randle said. "The energy he’s played with, the plays he’s making on the defensive end. Being in the right place at the right time, running the floor, making his open threes, all that stuff has been really good. It’s energized us as a team. So we’re going to continue to need that from him and we’ll have to get better as the series goes along. He’s been amazing."