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Benching Julius Randle: Was it genius or cautious?

Will JR miss more time? Is the bum ankle right? Questions, questions...

NBA Playoffs: Cleveland Cavaliers vs New York Knicks Photo by Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The New York Knicks did everything right on Sunday and earned a hard-fought third victory in their fourth Playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers by beating the visitors 102-93 at MSG.

That’s so true, in fact, that quite a rare decision made by head coach Tom Thibodeau between the third and fourth quarters ended up being determinant of the final outcome of G4 and surely helped New York put up the 3-1 lead on the board.

Thibs, against all odds, benched his main man Julius Randle in favor of third-year-pro Obi Toppin. And oh boy, did Obadiah deliver.

Asked about this sudden gameplan change after the game, Thibs offered his reasons.

“We were searching, and we knew this game was going to be a challenge because of the late game on Friday, short turnaround, early start today, [have to] find a way to win,” Thibodeau said. “That group got going, so at some point, you make a decision—probably around the five-minute mark, six-minute mark—and rode that out.”

“So those guys built the lead,” Thibodeau continued. “Obviously, whatever you think gives the team the best chance to win, that’s what you’re gonna do. That being said, there are a number of guys who are sacrificing and putting the team first. So I think that’s critical.”

Randle missed the final five games of the regular season with a sprained ankle. He got injured in late March, but he was good to start in Game One against the Cavs back on April 15.

Through the first three games of the first-round series, Randle had played 100 minutes shooting 18-of-55 (32.7%) from the floor and connecting on 8-of-27 (29.6%) three-point shots. He was averaging 17.3 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, and 1.3 SPG.

Before getting benched on Sunday, Randle played 27 minutes in which he scored seven points to go with a couple of rebounds, an assist, and a steal. He committed one turnover and shot 3-for-10 from the floor, missing all of his four three-point attempts.

Thibodeau praised Randle massively after the game, though, saying that the forward “is our horse,” and that “he has given us everything that he has.” The coach thinks that “a lot of guys probably wouldn’t even be playing, so I knew that the quick turnaround would probably impact him more than most players.”

Using a closing lineup featuring Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, and I-Hart/Mitch-Rob was definitely the right move by Thibs. Was it entirely done on purpose, though, or did Randle’s banged-up ankle force the coach to make such a decision—or at least, make it easier to swallow?

“Randle was out an extended amount of time. We’ve got multiple days here before the next game where we’ll get a chance to get some recovery time,” added Thibodeau. “The thing I love about him is he gives you everything he has. He’s done that. To come back the way he did, be ready for Game One. Credit to him. We need it, he’s our horse. You know that.”

With no game on the schedule until next Wednesday, it’s fair to wonder whether Randle will get a limited amount of play time through the remainder of this series, if not the rest of the postseason until the Knicks get bounced or lift the chip.

Toppin was fantastic in the fourth quarter, while Randle had a rather mediocre third. The latter wasn’t caring at all on defense, and that helped Cleveland come back from a 15-point deficit. The former got to play all but 40 seconds of the final stanza completing a 20-minute, 5-point, 8-rebound outing.

Julius Randle, by the way, was not in the locker room when media was allowed in and thus was not made available by the Knicks to field any questions after the game, according to Nick Friedell of ESPN.

Brunson backed his coach, echoing his feelings and thoughts after the game. “What Julius is able to do while he’s either on or off the floor has been incredible, he’s been special,” Brunson said. “All he wants to do is win. And when he has that mindset, it’s very contagious. So he’s been a leader, and we always got his back. He wants nothing else but to win.”

We have to assume Julius Randle will be there come tip-off time on Wednesday. Thibodeau didn’t give any further explanation or offered details about any potential setback or re-injury of Randle’s ankle forcing him to miss the fourth quarter in full, just saying that he “appreciates” how hard Randle worked to get back on the floor.

Game 5 takes place exactly four weeks from the day Randle suffered his injury, on March 29 against the Heat. We’ll see how he feels, and what Thibodeau thinks about tweaking the Knicks rotation for that matchup and upcoming playoff games.