Knicks forward Julius Randle reacts to being called for a...

Knicks forward Julius Randle reacts to being called for a foul during the second half of the team's NBA game against the Wizards on Dec. 23, 2021, at Madison Square Garden. Credit: AP/Adam Hunger

Julius Randle was back on the court Tuesday, cleared of COVID-19 protocols and readying for the game against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden. And in his two-game absence, the Knicks provided a reminder of just how important he is to the team.

As the team has struggled to live up to the performance of last season when the Knicks finished 41-31 and earned the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, much of the blame has fallen on Randle’s shoulders as he, too, has struggled to match last year’s performance.

But the Knicks' struggles in the two games that Randle sat out because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols may have been the most convincing argument for what Randle does for the team. While his numbers have dropped off from last season when he earned second-team All-NBA honors, without him the Knicks were a mess, losing one-sided games to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors.

The loss of Randle was not just in his role as the leading scorer on the team and a presence on the boards, but also as a facilitator, creating opportunities for other players by drawing double teams — something that his fill-in, Obi Toppin, has not yet required other teams to do.

And with point guards Derrick Rose and Kemba Walker sidelined with injuries, the inability to mount a coherent offense was on display.

"The big thing with those three guys is they command two people being on them," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said Tuesday before the game. "And so whether they’re being trapped in the pick and roll or trapped in the low post or overloaded, that opens the floor for everyone else. We just have to get to it a different way. I think defensively [it's] getting stops, getting into the open floor. But we can’t overlook the rebounding component. The rebounding component is huge."

Randle’s offensive numbers have dropped, shooting just 32.8% from three-point range after connecting on 41.1% last season, and dipping from 45.6% overall to 41.7%. His assists have dropped from six per game to five while his turnovers have risen slightly. And the Knicks on/off numbers with and without him were startling, the worst on the team and among the worst in the NBA.

But in these two games, the first two that Randle has missed after playing the first 35 this season and all 72 last season, it has provided a counterpoint to the criticism Randle has taken, particularly on social media.

"The thing is, it’s the day and age of social media, and that’s what social media is," Thibodeau said Sunday. "You try not to pay attention to it, because it’s really meaningless, whether it’s praise or criticism. It doesn’t really matter. Really, what matters is what we think. And so, we know how important he is. But it’s like the backup quarterback. Everyone thinks the backup should start until he has to start. And so, Julius is a terrific player. Derrick’s terrific. Kemba’s terrific. But guys are going to miss games, and when they do, there’s terrific players on our bench. Get in there, get the job done."

With those three out, RJ Barrett was the natural choice to step forward, but even as he scored 26 and 19 points in the two games, he didn’t get teammates involved and turned the ball over four times in each game.

"That’s the challenge," Thibodeau said. "Continue to grow. Play to your strengths, cover up your weaknesses. You have to simplify it a little bit, don’t make it so complicated where you’re slowing everything down. There’s a lot of moving parts right now."

For the Knicks, the parts were moving in the right direction Tuesday as the four players in health and safety protocols were all cleared — although Nerlens Noel was held out for conditioning work. But there was no one as important as Randle with the Pacers, who had already beaten the Knicks twice this season, arriving shorthanded, but with Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis up front.

"You’re seeing the size," Thibodeau said. "That’s the big thing — two guys who are big and skilled and can open the floor with shooting and playmaking and post up. The physicality of those guys. Two terrific players. It’s a big challenge for us."