Julius Randle returns and with RJ Barrett helps Knicks top Pacers

“When I talked to him last night, he told me how great he felt,” Thibodeau said. “So that’s good news. And it came at a good time. I was working on how we were going to match up with them, the substitutions. It was a late night call. It was one of the best late night calls I ever got.”

We’ll leave the imagination to wander on the phone calls that Thibodeau fields after dark. But getting Randle back made his plans much easier. Randle was back on the court Tuesday, cleared of COVID protocols and in the starting lineup as the Knicks readied to take on the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden.

In his two-game absence and with his return, the Knicks provided a reminder just how important he is to the team. Whether it was the return of their star to ease the burden on the rest of the team or simply good timing of catching the Pacers with a shorthanded list, Randle was back. There may not be the MVP chants that accompanied his every move late last season, but there was an acknowledgment that Randle, with 30 points and 16 rebounds, made a huge difference as the Knicks beat the Pacers, 104-94.

Randle combined with RJ Barrett, who carried the early load, scoring 19 of his 32 points in the first quarter, to help the Knicks break a two-game losing streak. The crowd chanted “RJ Barrett” already as Randle dribbled late in the game, but it was hard to argue that his return had the desired impact.

If it was the criticism or the screams from the crowd or simply fatigue after flying back on his own and joining the team and heading right into a 39-minute performance, Randle left the arena without speaking to the media.

“For Julius to do what he did today is just exceptional,” Thibodeau said. “To come off the health and safety protocol, travel, get here and play — we had no idea what he was going to be like. Unbelievable effort. Unbelievable game. 16 rebounds. Just all the things that he did.”

As the team has struggled to live up to the performance of last season when the Knicks finished 41-31 and earned the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, much of the blame has fallen on Randle’s shoulders as he, too, has struggled to match last year’s performance.

But the Knicks struggles in the two games that Randle sat out due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols may have been the most convincing argument for what Randle does for the team. While his numbers have dropped off from last season when he earned second-team All-NBA honors, without him the Knicks were a mess, losing one-sided games to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors.

Randle’s return was off to an unfavorable start, turning the ball over 93 seconds in and watching from the lane as Indiana’s Keifer Sykes backed away from him to the three-point line and drained a wide-open shot. Just 33 seconds later there was another turnover and Randle standing as other raced to the other end.

But his early struggles were covered up by offensive production from Barrett, who connected on his first six shots, scoring 19 first-quarter points. The Knicks were down 18-10 and then scored 16 straight points and built a 32-25 rule with Barrett and Randle playing the complete 12 minutes.

The Knicks struggled to shake the Pacers already though New York had cleared all of its players in health and safety protocols while Indiana was missing nine players — eight in health and safety protocols and one more to an injury. The teams headed into the half tied at 55. Sykes, who was playing in just his fourth NBA game, joined the Pacers last week, six years after going undrafted and playing in six different countries and then back in the G League this year waiting for a chance. He had 16 first-half points — more than he had in his first three games combined — and finished with 22.

The loss of Randle was not just in his role as the leading scorer on the team and a presence on the boards, but also as a facilitator, creating opportunities for other players by drawing double teams — something that his fill-in, Obi Toppin, has not in addition required other teams to do.

And with point guards Derrick Rose and Kemba Walker sidelined with injuries, the inability to mount a logical offense was on characterize.

“When you have guys who are going to command a second defender, it opens the game up for everyone else,” Thibodeau said. “And that’s what you don’t recognize with a Julius or a Derrick or a Kemba. Like Julius, they blitz the pick-and-rolls. So you get the second defender, and now it’s on us to make the right plays. And then if we move the ball quickly, we don’t fight pressure and move the ball and make the right reads, we’re going to get a good shot. And so Julius when he’s driving or in the post, when the second defender comes, it’s easy offense.”

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