Was it only five days ago that Julius Randle was the most celebrated basketball star in New York?
Randle had accomplished the inconceivable, leading a Knicks team that went 21-45 last season to a 41-31 record and their first playoff appearance in eight years. He did it by playing with grit and determination and a belief that both he and the Knicks could be much better than anyone else thought they could be.
Randle’s sudden metamorphosis into an All-Star was recognized around the league last week when he was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
It’s hard to reconcile the smiling and confident player who was on top of the world at the start of the postseason with the frustrated and flustered one we saw Sunday after a 113-96 loss to the Atlanta Hawks put the Knicks on the brink of elimination. They trail the best-of-seven series 3-1.
Randle continued his postseason struggle, missing 12 of his 19 shots and turning the ball over five times as fans serenaded him by chanting "Overrated!"
With the Knicks clearly headed for another bad loss, Randle let his frustration get the best of him with 3:05 left. That’s when he was called for a flagrant-1 foul for driving a forearm into Danilo Gallinari.
In four playoff games, Randle is shooting 20-for-73 (27.4%) and averaging 16.8 points per game. Contrast that with the fact that he had averaged 37.3 points in the Knicks’ three-game sweep of the Hawks in the regular season, the most points he scored against any team.
"I have to be a lot better. The team has to be a lot better," Randle said in the postgame Zoom session. "It’s a learning experience."
Indeed it is. And if there’s one thing the Knicks have learned this postseason, it’s that Randle alone cannot carry this team.
The Knicks have laid an incredible foundation this season, which is something you haven’t been able to say about this franchise in years. Randle, however, has not been able to get it done in the playoffs.
For the Knicks to continue to grow, it's clear that they are going to have to find a second offensive star to play alongside him. Atlanta has been able to double-team Randle this entire series because so few teammates have posed consistent offensive threats.
While he did score 21 points in Game 4, RJ Barrett has been a huge disappointment in the playoffs, scoring 14, 13 and seven points in the first three games.
The Knicks' most consistent performer offensively has been Derrick Rose, who is averaging 22.8 points. It’s not good news when your top player is a 32-year-old who wasn’t a starter until Game 3.
Of course, this is Rose’s seventh postseason appearance and the first trip to the playoffs for Randle and many other members of the Knicks' young team.
Coach Tom Thibodeau said he thinks Randle — who did score 23 points Sunday despite poor shooting — is learning and adjusting as the series goes on.
"Actually, I liked a lot of the plays that Julius made today," Thibodeau said. "I’ve felt this all along that it’s sort of Julius’ makeup that as he goes through things, he always gets better and better. That is who he is."
Randle has shown himself this season to be a better player than we all thought he was. He and his teammates clearly are frustrated by the problems they are having with the Hawks and superstar Trae Young.
It’s hard to imagine that frustration turning into something that gives the Knicks three straight wins and advances them to the next round. But after watching his star player kind of lose it at the end of Game 4, Thibodeau has confidence that his team will come back strong in Game 5 on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
"This is the playoffs, so there’s an intensity to it," he said. "I don’t know if frustration is the right word. Maybe disappointment. But there’s resiliency to this team. We have to fight back, and we will."