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Knicks' Julius Randle confident heading into Game 1 vs. Hawks

The Knicks' Julius Randle celebrates after drawing a

The Knicks' Julius Randle celebrates after drawing a foul late in the fourth quarter against the Pacers during an NBA game on Feb. 27 at Madison Square Garden. Credit: AP/Elsa

As the Knicks went through their final preparations for Game 1 of their opening-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks Sunday morning, there were uncertainties for the inexperienced players on the team. But for the most important player on the Knicks, there was no question that his confidence was ready for this, his first playoff opportunity.

Randle averaged 37.3 points in the Knicks' three-game sweep of the Hawks this season. While the Knicks have acknowledged that the regular season means nothing for a playoff series in which the Hawks have spent a week trying to figure out how to guard him, Randle has also prepared for the defense — with a plan and a warning for the Hawks.

"Doesn’t matter. Don’t care," Randle said when asked how he thought the Hawks would try to defend him. "That’s for them to figure out. I come into the game prepared, put the work in, put the time and effort into my game. My teammates trust me, coach has empowered me.

"It’s my job regardless of the opposing team does — which I really don’t care — it’s my job to go out and make the right plays. And that’s what my teammates entrust me to do. That’s what I try to do every possession – make the right play. And I trust my teammates, regardless, if they put two or three on the ball, whatever it is, I’m going to make the pass. Guys are going to knock down shots. If they don’t [double], good luck."

More than luck, the Hawks likely will rely on numbers. De’Andre Hunter in their best defender and he will likely draw the assignment much of the time, as will athletic forward John Collins. But Hawks coach Nate McMillan has insisted that getting the ball out of his hands might take more than one defender.

Randle has managed to make the right plays much of this season, averaging six assists per game and helping create open shots that have led to nearly half of the Knicks roster shooting 38% or better from beyond the arc. in his first season in New York Randle often tried to do too much, dribbling into double and triple team defenses and turning the ball over at an alarming rate.

This season, though, with Knicks first-year coach Tom Thibodeau preaching since day one of camp that the game will dictate the proper play, Randle still hasaveraged more than three turnovers per game, but his assists jumped from 3.1 to 6.0. Now, with a week to ready for this series, he believes he is prepared for whatever the Hawks come up with to try to slow him down.

"Yeah, we had an unusual amount of time to prepare," Randle said. "But also, I had time to recover and get my body right, make sure I was prepared for the series. It’s going to be a war, it’s going to be a battle. We’re looking forward to it. You know, it’s longer than usual and we wanted to get back on the court, everybody is ready to get back on the court. We’re happy it’s finally here."

While Randle earned an All-Star berth this season, almost certainly will be named the NBA’s Most Improved Player and is a likely All-NBA member for the first time, this is new for him. In his seventh NBA season, this is his first opportunity to play in the postseason. And he does it without the safety net of a veteran star to carry the team. It is on his shoulders to carry the Knicks.

"I’m very excited, not only to get back on the court, it’s been a week, but to be able to play in front of our fans," Randle said. "It’ll be a lot of fun to open up the series here. Really excited for that. We’ve just got to have game plan discipline. We’ve got to take every game one game at a time, be in the moment. Every possession matters, so we have to have a certain level of focus and intensity about us.

"And realize at the end of the day we’re playing basketball. We know it’s the playoffs - quote-unquote, more pressure, whatever it is. We’re playing basketball. We played playoff-style basketball all year with how we’d come into games prepared. and it’ll be the same tonight."

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