In the NBA, just like in MLB, there aren’t many dominant closers walking the face of the earth. Unlike baseball, a basketball team can’t have too many closers. Last night the New York Knicks were reminded of that. A 112-110 last-second defeat to the Brooklyn Nets happened for lots of reasons, but the biggest difference was the Nets having two closers in Kevin Durant and James Harden and the Knicks not. Same thing against Chicago earlier this month: Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan are closers. How many closers do the Knicks have?
Julius Randle scored 24 points to go with nine rebounds, eight assists to just three turnovers and three steals. He made himself present defensively against Kevin Durant, outplayed KD through the first half, and none of that says whether he’s a closer or miscast in the role for lack of a better option. One fourth quarter doesn’t answer that question one way or the other, but let’s look back at Randle’s late-game actions — as is so often the case, how Caesar goes, so go the Knicks.
About midway through the fourth, Randle made a nice hustle play saving the ball to Derrick Rose, who found Obi Toppin blazing ahead of the field.
A few minutes later, Randle airballed a corner 3. He rebounded Brooklyn’s next miss, then hit a driving basket. After Harden found Durant to put the Nets up one with three minutes left, Randle got the hockey assist passing out to Rose, who then swung it to Alec Burks for the open 3.
With under two minutes remaining, Randle missed a fadeaway over Harden. Durant scored again, with Randle picking up a supremely ill-timed technical foul to push the lead to three.
On the Knicks’ possession he drove and dished to Rose for a clean look at a corner 3, which Rose missed; the Knicks rebounded it and Randle drove again, only this time he was stocked by KD, meaning Durant blocked the ball and stole it all in one act. After Brooklyn missed, Randle got out ahead of the field for the dunk. 45 seconds left. Knicks down one.
From 40 feet out, Durant drove past Randle and skied for a dunk attempt, drawing a shooting foul and making both free throws. Respect to Tom Thibodeau for a great moment in coaching: knowing the Nets had a foul to give, Thibs avoided calling time after the free throws like coaches usually do. If he had called time then, Brooklyn would have seen what action the Knicks were going to run, given the foul and been ready to counter whatever New York drew up. Instead, the Nets gave the foul, then the Knicks called time, then Evan Fournier made them pay. Listen to the home crowd roar in approval.
On the Nets’ last possession, Durant started his move halfway between the arc and midcourt, drew the double-team and passed it to James Johnson, who drove into the paint and drew a foul on Mitchell Robinson. He hit both free throws, and when Fournier’s last-second je vous salue marie hit the back iron, the Nets had the win. The Knicks have a question to ask themselves.
What’s the next step in New York’s process? Last season the team rode a dominant record against losing teams to its best finish in eight years. This year they’re 7-6 against teams who currently have winning records; obviously if they’d played better against worse competition, their record would look good. But the question of what the team has with Randle is not completely answered, at least not yet.
He’s obviously a big part of where they are now, and maybe where they’re ultimately trying to get to. But what is he? What role are they hoping he fulfills? They’re not paying him max money — does that mean they think he’s the second- or third-best player on a contender? Does the fact that he looks to pass more than shoot mean he’s not cut out to be a closer? Does it mean he looks to make the right play, and so the issue isn’t him, it’s raising the level of the talent around him, the players he’s looking to involve?
Harden scored 28 in the first half. Durant scored 11 of Brooklyn’s final 15 points. Randle is capable of either feat, now and again. For the Knicks to step up competitively, they have to be better against the better teams. That means firepower. That means appreciating what Burks and Rose give you without settling for miscasting them in bigger roles than they can fill. KD may be the best player alive. Harden is averaging 21 and eight rebounds while ranking second in the league with over 9 assists per game. Kyrie Irving isn’t even playing. The Knicks come ready to fight. Randle is a wonderful player. Is he a closer? Until the Knicks have their answer, they’re going to come up short against teams that can say “All of the above.”
- I keep hearing more and more about Mitch being uncomfortable on the perimeter against guards. Didn’t that used to be a strength, or at least an area of competence? We’re 21 games into the season and I’m still waiting to see anything out of Mitchell Robinson that reminds me of “Mitchell Robinson.”
- Harden was BOOED when he was shoot his first free throws. LOLOLOLOL
- It happened so suddenly I never noticed until it was a thing, but Randle is a devout disciple of the Kurt Thomas I Have Literally Never Committed A Foul cult. I know Randle got the short end of the whistle a lot in this game, and was vocal afterward about the refs telling him he’s getting the Shaq treatment. But there’s no way the complaining and incredulity on permanent display on his face are helping his rep any.
- Wayne Gretzky was said to be “in his office” when he had the puck behind the net; that’s how productive he was back there. KD’s office is anywhere on the floor when he’s drifting left before pulling up for that jumper. Distance and stakes don’t matter — if he’s moving left, it’s checkmate.
- Late-stage Rose being this reliable from deep is not a thing I ever saw coming. I likes it.
- RJ Barrett was pulled after nine minutes. Word from the sideline was RJ was “ill” and that it isn’t Covid.
- Randle has graduated to the Patrick Ewing School of Take Fewer Jumpers And Get To The Paint More, Please.
- This was a gorgeous finish from Rose, switching to his off-hand for the contested scoop lay-in. One thing I’d like for Christmas is for announcers to not always follow every nice thing Rose does with bittersweet reference to need to what he used to be in Chicago. Just no. https://twitter.com/nyknicks/status/1465866173497626624?s=20
- Paul Millsap was correctly called for a blocking foul on Randle, robbing of us of the rare opportunity to credit Nerlens Noel with actually catching a pass.
- Another strong performance by Burks. Could Burks be Lou Gehrig and David Lee all rolled into one? Like, he’s Gehrig to Kemba Walker’s Wally Pipp, plus just like Golden State replaced a multiple All-Star selection in Lee with Draymond Green, Burks is replacing a multiple All-Star in Kemba?
- Despite a lot of assholer-y around Nets Twitter, their move to the city has been unquestionably good for the Knicks. There’s legit local competition and far more of a rivalry feel than there ever was when they played in New Jersey. Also the crowd split/energy is maybe unheard of in pro sports? All those rapturous stories you hear about the Yankees/Dodgers/Giants back in the day? That’s Knicks/Nets today.
- TNT’s Reggie Miller saying Immanuel Quickley got blocked when it was obviously Rose (Rose getting the ball right back, driving to the paint and scoring was conspicuous), followed by him having to call out “Kick!” after all our eyeballs had already registered that fact...that’s Reggie the announcer
- Reggie on Randle needing to check his emotions, “too good a player” to be so emotional. When Patrick Ewing was 27 he’d won one playoff series and was hardly regarded as placid. Hopefully Julius turns out okay.
- If anyone has access to Spike Lee, ask him for me: What would Spike in 1991 think of Spike’s style in 2021?
Quoth Dr. Mets&GiantsAllDay: “Harden + Durant is deadly man.” I cheated a little and added a comma in the headline; otherwise it sounds like Harden and Durant combine to form one deadly man, which I can see but would rather not. I would rather not see the Knicks lose again anytime soon, but the week doesn’t get any easier. Next game is tomorrow when they host LaVine, DeRozan and the other Bulls. We’ll see how that one winds down. Peace.