INDIANAPOLIS — At first glance, it was easy to overlook Julius Randle in the Knicks win in San Antonio Tuesday night. RJ Barrett broke out of his shooting slump with a 32-point effort keyed by a career-high seven three-point field goals. Mitchell Robinson, under the spotlight of having been removed from the starting lineup, put on display his most active effort of the season — 11 points, 14 rebounds, two steals and three blocked shots.
You could even run down the rest of the roster and find others — Alec Burks and Immanuel Quickley — who scored more than the 15 points on just 5-for-12 shooting that Randle contributed (including an 0-for-3 shooting first half). But as Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau discussed the contributions after the game he was quick to point out that Randle had played a huge part in making all of the others' performances possible.
Randle had seven assists with just one turnover and a closer look at those assists shows six of them led to three-point field goals, no small part in the 18 that the Knicks made on this night.
"I don’t want to overlook how well Julius played," Thibodeau said. "He didn’t fight the double team, he made great decisions, great plays, the whole night. If we do that we can play off that. Guys got to their space, they moved, they shared the ball and that’s the way we have to play.
". . . He’s the type of player, he’s going to command a lot of attention. So you don’t want to fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split the double team. Don’t hang out too long. Just read the defense. I thought he was fantastic. He played a great game and scored 15 points. He played a phenomenal game to be honest with you."
Randle has 15 assists and just two turnovers over the last two games, although it would be hard to call his performance against Denver when he had eight assists and one turnover a stellar performance as most of the Knicks numbers came with the game already out of reach early. He had seven turnovers in the game before that against Chicago and has had at least four turnovers in nine games this season.
As the Knicks have struggled to find their way this season Randle has been an easy target to point to — his numbers are not close to what they were last season when he earned second-team All-NBA honors and was named the NBA Most Improved Player. His shooting numbers have represented the biggest drop, but it’s been easy to spot a tendency at times to revert to the style of his first season in New York when he dribbled into traffic and tried to force the action. With Randle dominating the ball it was no surprise that a ball-dominant point guard like Kemba Walker didn’t fit in the starting lineup.
"He’s getting better and better at it to be honest," Thibodeau said. "He could beat you a lot of different ways. He’s seeing that type of defense more and more. Now he’s understanding it better. He’s a student of the game. He’ll continue to work. He’s great at running the floor. He can put it on the floor. He can shoot the three. He got to some isolation and when they sent the other guy he just sprayed and did a great job of getting It to the right spots. It was all tied together."
Barrett pointed to Randle as a key to creating openings for other players — and two of his three-point field goals came on plays when Randle went into the lane and kicked it out to him.
"Number one, the defense was really focused on Julius a lot," Barrett said. "They were doubling him every time he got the ball. And we just moved it. And I was able to knock them down."
Thibodeau just wants to see the right play spotted and avoid the turnovers.
"The concentration, the spacing, the discipline and then the unselfishness," Thibodeau said is what is needed. "Sometimes your turnovers, you want to eliminate the ways that you beat yourself first. So you look at turnovers and fouls first. And so you want to be disciplined in those areas. Usually if you [have] high turnovers it’s either too much one-on-one or risky passes. So hit the first open man, just read the game correctly. And you have to remain unselfish. Sometimes when you’re in a hole, you’re so anxious to get out of that hole, you try to do it yourself. And that’s not the way to do it. You have to do it together."