MILWAUKEE — The NBA awarded Julius Randle in the usual politically correct way, naming him as the Eastern Conference Player of the Week Monday. Randle described his performance in a different way.
“Just getting to my kill zones,” Randle said of his improved play. “The spots that I’m comfortable getting to on the floor and creating a shot for myself, my teammates.”
Asked if the game plans and scouting reports actually call it that, he smiled and said, “In my mind, it says kill zones. I know what my kill zones are in my mind.”
Randle’s description may be more apt as he has found his form after a slow start to the season, averaging 24.7 points, 13.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game as the Knicks went 3-0 last week and secured their place in the In-Season Tournament quarterfinals Tuesday night here against the Bucks.
As always for the Knicks, they need Randle at his best to have a chance. And he has been the player they need, working his way into the paint, finding teammates and orchestrating the Knicks offense along with Jalen Brunson, who was Eastern Conference Player of the Week two weeks ago.
But the task for him Tuesday with a trip to Las Vegas on the line wasn’t so simple — not when Giannis Antetokounmpo was in the “kill zone” with him. Still, Randle has been at his best lately and so have the Knicks, entering the game with a 12-7 record and the hope of avenging their only In-Season Tournament pool-play loss.
So however you want to word the honor, Randle is happy to take it.
“It’s humbling,” Randle said. “I always say it goes to team success, as well, so we’re playing better basketball, getting better.
“It’s also just getting in the lab, just working, just putting in the work, putting in the time.”
The NBA instituted the In-Season Tournament to create more excitement and interest for fans and players in early-season games. The atmosphere in Indiana as the Pacers beat the Celtics on Monday night was electric. Before the tipoff in Milwaukee, if you wanted a hint of how serious the Knicks were taking it all you had to know was that the team was holding a morning shootaround at Fiserv Forum — something Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau never does when a game is earlier than 7 p.m. local time.
Asked about that, Josh Hart started to answer when RJ Barrett yanked him out of the crowd of media before he could comment.
A win in Milwaukee would mean the Knicks were heading to Las Vegas for the tournament semifinals, and a loss would mean a next stop in Boston to face the Celtics Friday. The teams are clearly looking at the competitive nature of the tournament as well as the $500,000 payday to the players and coaches on the winning team.
“I think guys want to go to Vegas,” Randle said.
“It goes into the energy,” Hart said of the difference between this and a typical regular-season game. “Watching the game yesterday you saw the energy in that place, it was like a playoff atmosphere. Hopefully, Cream City — that’s what it’s called, right? — hopefully Cream City does that and has that energy, has that vibe. We’re looking forward to it.”
These Knicks players haven’t faced this sort of one-and-done elimination game since college. Hart was part of a Villanova team that won a national championship in 2016 and Randle went all the way to an NCAA championship game in 2014 at Kentucky.
“That was 10 years ago for me,” Randle said. “So it’s kind of tough to compare. I would say this is definitely a different feeling than I’ve had in the NBA, in my career, as far as being in position in December of unknown. But I like it. I like not knowing. So it’s fun.”