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Julius Randle after coming back to beat Cleveland: “I was tired as hell”

JR asked us: “You see me breathing out there today?”

2023 NBA Playoffs - New York Knicks v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

How’s that for a start?

The Knicks defeated the Cavaliers 101-97 in the Eastern Conference fourth vs. fifth series-opener and there was a familiar name in New York’s lineup: starting at Forward, 6-8 from Kentucky, number 30... Julius Randle!

Randle, who spent more than two weeks rehabbing a sprained ankle injury suffered in late March, returned to the court on Saturday after missing the last five games of the regular season.

The Knicks spent a week keeping the decision under wraps and getting fined while at it. New York didn’t make the final call until just mere hours before tip-off. At the end of the day, deploying Randle from the get-go surely paid off—Cavs fans like it or not.

Randle started and spent 33:33 minutes on the court, which might sound like a lot but was definitely not considering his regular season and Thibodeau’s rotation. In the 17 games he played after the All-Star break, Randle only logged fewer minutes than Saturday two times—in two 22-point victories against New Orleans and Houston.

“Every day I got significantly better,” Randle said about his recovery leading up to Game 1. “I felt like by the time Saturday got here I’d be fine.”

That said, Randle revealed that “at first, I didn’t think I could do it.”

Speaking to Rebecca Haarlow of MSG Network right after the game, Randle gave a shout-out to associate HC Johnnie Bryant for his help through the recovery and for putting Randle in a prime position to make it back to the hardwood in time to face Cleveland in the series opener. “Johnnie Bryant put me through the wringer over this past week, and he really made it tough for me,” said JR. “He prepared me for this, and I’m good to go.”

Even though he only played 33 minutes, Randle still did enough to put up a 19-point, 10-rebound double-double on the evening to go with a couple of steals on top of everything. The forward let Mitchell Robinson and Josh Hart (five each) work the offensive glass while he dominated on the defensive end with a team-high eight D-boards.

However, Randle grabbed the most important offensive rebound of the season for the Knicks, and everybody knows it.

“I thought [Randle] had a very strong start to the game. And the rebound was huge. Huge,” Thibodeau said. “We all know you’re gonna get everything he has.”

“He’s a presence,” Jalen Brunson said of his teammate. “The offensive rebound was huge, and the little things that he has committed himself to do has been fantastic. It helps us — some of the things that he does, it may not go in the stat sheet, but it’s big time.”

“Seeing No. 30 out there was just a great sight,” Obi Toppin said.

Thibs decided to sub Randle off just five minutes into the first quarter, replacing him with Obi Toppin early. Not a bad decision, considering the final outcome and the über-efficient outing Toppin logged going 3-of-4 from the floor for nine points (two of them from the charity stripe) while grabbing four boards and dishing out one dime in just 14 minutes off the pine.

“I was tired as hell, for sure,” said Randle. “But [...] we have such a great team, able to lean on the guys, everybody able to pick each other up. I just go out and be myself and let the cards fall where they may and trust in the guys.”

The Knicks employed their usual nine-man rotation with Randle and Hart leading the team in minutes with 33 each.

The Cavs, on the other hand, relied heavily on their starters with three players reaching 43 minutes and Evan Mobley getting 38 himself. Nobody on Cleveland’s bench reached 20 minutes and two of the four substitutes got six and seven respectively.

“I think we just bring a lot of energy off the bench,” Hartenstein said. “I think you got a lot of guys on the bench who on other teams can probably start. I think anytime Josh, Quick, Obi, or me come in the game no matter what’s on the scoreboard, we’re just trying to come in and play the right way and I think that’s what makes us most effective.”

“Julius coming back from injury, doing the little stuff that doesn’t show up on the box score...” started Hartenstein. “That big rebound at the end of the game really shows his resiliency. He’ll do whatever the team needs to win. That’s what makes him special.”

Special, indeed.

“You see me breathing out there today?” said Randle after the game. “I was tired as hell. But it was just about winning at that point.”

Randle told MSG Network that he “prepared himself mentally,” knowing that “it was going to be tough just coming back” considering his conditioning after missing so much time before a high-stakes game like Saturday’s.

The All-Star forward also praised his teammates, namely Brunson. “He was great. JB controlled the pace. He got us good shots, made good shots,” Randle told MSG Network. He was discussing The Rebound at the end of the fourth period when he pulled down the board after Brunson’s missed jump shot.

“It was just about winning the game at that point,” said Randle. “I don’t think J.B.’s going to miss, but if he does, get on the glass, try to win the game.”

And win the Knicks did.

Second game of the series tipping off at 7:30 EST on Tuesday. Knicks up 1-0. Cavs hosting them once more. Don’t miss it.