MIAMI — Anyone who has ever played for Pat Riley or any of the coaches around the league who have sprouted from his coaching tree is familiar with this story.
Shortly before Riley began coaching the Knicks, he went on a whitewater rafting expedition with a bunch of successful VIPs from various fields. “The kind of people who usually had staff to take care of life’s basic chores” he recalled in his airport bookstore classic, "The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players."
Yet it wasn’t something these captains of industry said that Riley would find himself quoting again and again to his players over the years. It was a safety rule that one of the river guides taught them: “If you fall overboard, you must be an active participant in your own rescue.”
Tom Thibodeau, who is part of the Riley coaching tree, needs to underline that passage three times and hand it to Julius Randle before Monday’s Game 4 of the Knicks-Heat series.
Randle has fallen overboard in the playoffs. And if he doesn’t attempt to pull himself back into the boat quickly, the Knicks are going to be facing an elimination game at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.
The knock on the two-time All-Star is that he is an 82-game player who disappears in the playoffs. Yet even by those standards, his performance in the Knicks’ 105-86 Game 3 loss was shockingly poor.
Randle scored just 10 points and shot 4-for-15. He turned the ball over four times and missed all five of his three-point attempts. What hurt the Knicks most is that he let his struggle on offense impact his play defensively. Randle could have been the X-factor, the one player with the size to make Jimmy Butler work in the paint. Instead, it was Butler who set the tone for Miami and Randle who looked disengaged.
It marked the fourth time in seven playoff games that Randle has scored 15 points or fewer. In the Knicks’’ first-round series against Cleveland, he averaged 14.4 points and shot 33.8%. In 12 career playoff games with the Knicks, those averages are 16.4 / 32.3%. In his four regular seasons with the team, he has averaged 22.3 points and shot 44.7%.
One of the things that makes Randle’s struggle so difficult to watch is just how it stands in contrast to what he did this regular season. Randle took a lot of heat after the Knicks failed to make the playoffs in 2022. There was talk that he was just a guy who performed better in the COVID bubble, a guy who couldn’t take the pressure of playing in front of the Knicks’ intense fan base.
Randle seemed to have squashed that talk with All-Star caliber play this season. Until spraining his ankle and sitting out the final five games of the season, Randle had played in all 77 of the Knicks’ games, averaging a career-high 25.1 points.
Yes, the addition of Jalen Brunson helped Randle immensely. Yet there’s no doubt that Randle was an active participant in his own rescue, that he was able to pull himself back onto the raft and back into the good graces of Knicks fans by playing hard every night through the first 77 games.
One has to wonder just how much Randle’s ankle injury is bothering him. Randle has repeatedly said it’s not a factor, but he did miss the first game in this series after reaggravating it. Brunson, who also has a sore ankle, appeared to be bothered by it several times in the Game 3 loss.
It’s impossible to compare the severity of ankle injuries, but the one player in Game 3 who seemed not to be bothered by his was Butler, who missed Game 2 after getting injured at the end of Game 1.
Butler’s performance was devastating in that it gave the Heat control of the series and the confidence that they can dominate a team that everyone thought coming into the series had superior players. Now, it’s up to Randle and the Knicks to find a way to punch back.
The plan, said Randle, is take what they can away from Saturday's setback and move forward.
“You take the emotions out of it,” Randle said during conference call on Sunday. “This [loss] is not one you can typically flush away. You learn from the game before, what you can do better . . . One game is not going to determine how we feel for the next game or what we think the future’s going to be.”
Knicks fans can only hope that’s the case.