Julius Randle has to learn to direct his frustration at the opposition, not his Knicks teammates
There is a black-and-white film clip that still makes the rounds these days in which Willis Reed gets into a fight with the Lakers — not just one player, but the Lakers.
He threw down one player, then another, then veering near the Lakers' bench, he continued to beat down anyone who got near him. And the way the story goes, he later asked Dick Barnett why his teammates didn’t come to his aid and Barnett responded, “Man, you were winning.”
The story comes to mind not just because of the sad occasion of Reed’s passing on Tuesday, but because there is a difference in fight and emotion when it’s directed for your team rather than against it.
Picture Reed and there is no one more inspirational to his teammates. Think back to Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, John Starks and the rest of the 1990s Knicks and you knew that whatever might happen in practice, they were united in their animosity toward Michael Jordan or Reggie Miller.
But now? I watched up close Thursday as Julius Randle had his own outburst, but the most telling difference is that it wasn’t with the opposition. Instead, he went nose-to-nose with his own teammate. And with that, Randle most certainly is not winning.
It wasn’t a one-time thing. Actually, Randle has been whistled for a technical foul in three straight games and four of the last seven games — and in the first of those and this most recent one, while attempting to defuse the situations, teammates found themselves the subject of his ire.
Earlier this month in Los Angeles, Evan Fournier and a team security guard tried to keep him from advancing on an official and found him screaming at them. On Thursday, it was Immanuel Quickley who absorbed the vitriol.
As was the case two years ago, Randle has been the Knicks' best player this season. But despite the numbers and the NBA.com MVP Ladder having him at No. 7, it’s hard to argue that he’s the most valuable player on this team when he doesn't have the impact that Jalen Brunson has had on the team. And the thing is, Randle should.
Randle was here at the start of the building of this team and has endured the hard times and celebrated the good. He’s as reliable a player as there is in the league in simply being there — playing every night, playing more minutes than anyone else in the NBA — and has produced numbers that make him a huge part of what the Knicks have accomplished (25.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists per game).
He earned an All-NBA berth two years ago (and might do it again this season) and has two All-Star Game appearances and a Most Improved Player Award on his resume. He’s smart and well-spoken, as dedicated a family man as you’ll find, and one who has spoken openly of controlling his body language and setting an example for his children.
At this stage of the season — and particularly if Brunson is sidelined for a lengthy period of time with his sprained right hand — the Knicks need Randle not only to score his points and grab his rebounds but to serve as a leader again.
The Knicks certainly aren’t the only team that this happens to — as evidenced by the leaked video of Draymond Green punching Jordan Poole in practice proved. We don’t see behind closed doors, and with the Knicks, more than any other team, the doors are almost always closed.
When I asked coach Tom Thibodeau if the way-too-visible barking at teammates is something the team has addressed, he approached it only in vague terms, never mentioning Randle by name.
“There's emotion involved, so you want the emotion to get out of it,” Thibodeau said. “And then sometimes when you talk, it clears the air, so that's good. You allow for idiosyncrasies as long as it doesn't get in the way of winning. Nothing can get in the way of winning. The team always has to come first. And so everyone's responsible for that.”
Still, the Knicks, in a week when they have spoken in reverential tones of the leadership of Willis Reed, might be well-advised to take those words to heart before their season ends.
The Brunson problem
The Knicks have not disclosed exactly what the injury is that sidelined Brunson on Thursday, and with no practice Friday or Saturday, they weren’t adding any updates other than sticking to their statement that he has a sprained right hand. Thibodeau did not disclose if Brunson underwent any X-ray or imaging exams and had called him a game-time decision Thursday.
But Brunson carefully hid his right hand all night long, keeping it in the pocket of his hoodie while he sat on the bench. After the game, he was spotted outside the locker room and he was wearing a hard plastic splint over his hand and thumb.
The Knicks are 5-5 in games he hasn’t started — and lost the game in Sacramento when he had to shut it down after a 19-point first half.
It hasn't been all bad for the Knicks in their recent three-game skid. As they head toward the postseason, second-year wing Quentin Grimes has emerged with back-to-back 22- and 25-point nights, shooting 56.7% overall and 55.0% from three-point range in the two games.
“I’ve felt good,” Grimes said. “Just trusting my work. It’s all going to pay off. I know what I do out there on the court. I just go out there, teammates are finding me when I am hitting shots. I just need to go out there and be aggressive at all times.
“Definitely coming in with a mindset to be ultra-aggressive, shoot the open shots, make the right plays, just attack, drive and kick and make plays for myself and my teammates. So just being aggressive, knowing I can make the right reads for me and for my teammates.”
Grimes has taken on the task of defending the best perimeter threat on the opposing team and has not had any complaints about his lack of opportunities on offense. But in these last two games, he had 30 field-goal attempts after getting only 23 in the five previous games.
“We were playing well and we were winning and that’s the main thing, to win,” Grimes said. “So I wasn’t really tripping on when I was gonna get my opportunity again. You just gotta wait your turn, really. We have a good team, we have a lot of depth now, I knew I had to be patient and things were gonna follow through.”