The New York Knicks kept themselves in the mix against the Atlanta Hawks, winning Game 2 of their Eastern Conference first-round series after trailing by as much as 15 points in the first half. The series now heads to Atlanta for Games 3 and 4 tied at 1–1. But one could forgive the Knicks if they put out the following request for help in locating star Julius Randle.
LOST: 6-foot-8 man in his mid-20s — answers to Julius, Beyblade, or most recently, MIP. If found, please return to New York Knicks at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. No questions asked.
There’s a reason such an advertisement might be necessary. During the first two games, the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Julius Randle, has been missing in action for all but one quarter of his first two career playoff games.
Julius Randle a massive factor for the New York Knicks
In the third quarter of Game 2, Julius Randle teamed up with Derrick Rose to combine for 21 of the New York Knicks’ 32 points as they reversed a 57–44 halftime deficit and entered the fourth period with a 76–75 lead.
Randle played the entire third quarter and was 4-of-5 from the floor, including 2-of-3 from 3-point range, and had three rebounds, an assist, and a steal. Randle has been conspicuous by his lack of impact for the other 61 minutes he’s logged in the series. He’s a frigid 11-of-39 in the series, just 28.2%. That dropped to 7-of-34 if you take away his magical 12 minutes in Game 2.
He is shooting a better percentage from 3-point land (30.8% on 4-of-13 shooting) than inside the arc. A big part of Randle’s award-winning season was his meteoric improvement from deep. He went from 27.7% on 3.6 attempts per game in 2019–20 to 41.1% on 5.5 attempts a night this season. A player improving by more than 13 percentage points and increasing volume? That is extremely rare.
What is Atlanta doing differently in this series?
In those three games, predictably, the Hawks used John Collins as their primary defender on Julius Randle. Collins played in all three matchups and was primarily responsible for covering Randle for 16:17, allowing 39 points. The player most responsible for checking Randle in the first two games of the playoffs has been Danilo Gallinari for 8:55. De’Andre Hunter and Collins have handled the job for 5:29 and 5:22, respectively.
It’s not like the Atlanta Hawks had done anything special against Julius Randle this season. Or the New York Knicks, for that matter. New York swept three games from the Hawks during the regular season. Atlanta’s defense wasn’t even a particularly effective speed bump against Randle, either. He put up 37.3 points (including two of his four career 40-point games), 12.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists a game over the sweep, shooting 58.1% overall while making half of his 26 3-point tries.
Clint Capela, Atlanta’s center, has been (pardon the pun) at the center of the scheme. The Hawks want to force Randle into Capela’s area. Seeing the rim protector has forced Randle into hurried jump shots. Even just a quick flash by Capela has been enough to make Randle pull up.
What Randle did differently for the New York Knicks in the 3rd quarter of Game 2
Julius Randle put together a big third quarter in Game 2 because he was willing to challenge Capela. Randle, however, struggled in the fourth quarter, going just 1-of-5. Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks scored six points each in the period, and the New York Knicks were able to pull away for the 101–92 victory.
The Knicks’ defense did the heavy lifting in the second half. New York held the Hawks to just 35 points after the break on 27.5% shooting, including 3-of-19 from deep. The Knicks countered with 47.8% shooting and hit 10-of-21 from the great beyond. The percentage disparity helped fuel a 30–14 rebounding edge.
But if the Knicks are going to reclaim home-court advantage with a win at Atlanta, Julius Randle will have to play like the guy on display in the third quarter of Game 2. Too many more sightings of that other Julius Randle could make it a brief postseason for the Knicks.