On the day the New York Knicks (44-33) virtually won a number five seed in the Eastern Conference, they lost a key member of their rotation and someone they will need if they want to make any sort of postseason run.
The Knicks hosted the Miami Heat (40-37) at MSG on Wednesday, dealt with them in a not-so-complicated way, and went to sleep with a 101-92 victory in their pockets and a nearly locked top-five finish in the Eastern side of the bracket—no play-in drama needed.
The elephant in the room: Julius Randle landed on Bam Adebayo’s foot after attempting a layup with a couple of minutes left in the second quarter, and he never returned to the court after leaving it by the next blown whistle.
“Randle will be evaluated tomorrow,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “It’s a sprain,” he added.
While Thibs acknowledged this type of thing is “part of the game,” and he just resigned to concede “you deal with it, focus on the rehab, get back as soon as you can,” this injury couldn’t have come at a worst moment with the postseason right around the corner.
Of course, there is still time for Randle to get back to full availability, and we don’t even know (as I’m writing this) the extent of the ankle injury yet. There are five games left in the Knicks’ regular season schedule starting Friday when they’ll visit the Cleveland Cavaliers, coincidentally the number four team in the East.
Speaking about replacing Randle for the remainder of the season, Thibs said that “you don’t do it individually, you have to do it collectively,” and that having gone through a similar spell without Jalen Brunson for different reasons, “we understand where we are and what we have to do.“
The coach thinks the Knicks “have more than enough on the bench,” which certainly was the case on Wednesday after a large part of the second unit spent the whole fourth quarter on the court without a single substitution getting called by Thibs on their way to winning the final stanza 25-16.
“I think our bench was terrific. So next, get in there, next man up, get it done. That’s the way we have to approach it,” Thibodeau said.
After a slow start that was this close to marking an all-time (negative) record, the Knicks surely righted their wrongs. New York shot 0-for-6 from the charity stripe through the first 12 minutes, the first time a team went empty on freebies (min. 6 FTA) in a Q1 since the Hawks did so in 2009.
This was a tight game for the most part, mind you. Miami separated a bit at the start of the second, going up by 10, but then everything got into a you-lead-I-lead affair, in which as many as 20 lead changes and 12 ties were registered through the first three quarters.
The bench mob was the deciding factor for the Knicks to win their second in a row and drop the Heat from the top-5 race through the fourth quarter, mostly during the final seven minutes after New York got an 86-84 advantage that it would not relinquish.
After dumping a career-high 40 points last Monday against the lowly Rockets, Immanuel Quickley led the Knicks once more with 24 points—only this time coming off the pine. That’s because Jalen Brunson finally made his anticipated comeback and returned to man the point through 30 minutes in which he scored 12 points to go with three dimes and two boards.
Brunson was ready to enter the court in the final quarter, but Thibs told him to hold on for a bit and ultimately decided to run with the second unit—along with RJ and Grimes—for the full period.
“Yeah, [the reserves] rolled away with the game. The way they were playing was incredible,” Brunson said after the game. “They just found a way to keep fighting. Everything they were doing on both sides of the ball, they were clicking, so you’ve just got to go with that.”
Thibs explained his decision after the final whistle. “The most important thing is winning the game, and that’s what I love about Jalen,” the coach told the media. “So he was like, ‘I’m good.’ I said OK, hold on. He came back to the bench and he was cheering his teammates on. That’s what you want.
“You’re asking all your players to sacrifice and put the team first. And that’s when we talk about leadership. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Josh Hart scored 13 grabbing eight rebounds. Isaiah Hartenstein and Obi Toppin both nailed six points while combining for 12 rebounds, six dimes, two steals, and one block.
“Injuries happen, but what we can do is we can play great defense. We can rebound the ball great. We can take care of the ball. We know if we do those three things great, we can be in a position to win,” said Thibs. “So we gotta make up for [Randle] collectively.”
Randle, in fact, had one of his worst games through the 15 minutes he was available to play. He went 1-of-5 from the floor scoring a measly three points to go with five rebounds and a single assist against a couple of turnovers.
“No Ju, so we kind of had to figure something out,” RJ Barrett told reporters. “Thank god it worked.”
“I know Julius is a fighter, he’s a competitor. He’s going to do everything he can to make sure he’s ready to go,” Brunson said before adding that he is ”not that concerned” about Randle’s injury.
Barrett scored 12 points on a wildly inefficient shooting evening (4-of-13 from the field, 2-of-6 from three-point range), adding five rebounds and one block to his tally. Mitchel Robinson scored two points on three shots, and pulled down six boards.
Quentin Grimes, who has had an extraordinary run of games of late, scored 23 and went into double-digit figures for the fourth game in a row after scoring 22, 25, and 14 in three prior matchups.
This win has New York four games above the number seven seed Miami into the first (last?) play-in position and 2.5 games above the number six Brooklyn outside of it.
In other words, the Knicks are pretty much going to finish the regular season where they are at, and are virtually locked into a four-vs-five seed matchup against Cleveland.
A not-very-important but definitely interesting game is scheduled for Friday in what looks like a preview of the upcoming first-round postseason series between the Knicks and Cavs. Tip-off at 7:30. Don’t miss it.