Julius Randle holds the key to unlocking Kemba Walker, Knicks offense

With six seconds left on the shot clock and 4:41 to go in the second quarter, New York Knicks‘ All-Star forward Julius Randle posted up Philadelphia 76ers’ swingman Tobias Harris and demanded the ball. From the top of the right-wing, Evan Fournier acknowledged Randle and gave him the entry pass.

Randle faced Harris with one motion, then did the side-to-side before dribbling to his favorite spot on the floor– the right corner.

It was a classic isolation play that the Knicks heavily relied on last season.

But as the shot clock ticked away to three seconds, Seth Curry abandoned Fournier and went to help Harris. The double team blurred Randle’s vision and forced him to settle for a tough fadeaway that fell short.

The ball didn’t even graze the rim. Airball. A shot-clock violation against the Knicks.

It was Randle’s lone attempt at the basket in the second quarter. He had a rough offensive start, going 2-for-9 from the floor, but the Knicks went on to sit on a 20-point halftime cushion.

Why and how did the Knicks do it with Randle laying an egg in the second quarter?

After the Orlando Magic pulled a shocking 110-104 upset of the Knicks on Sunday night, Randle was up until the wee hours of Monday.

“I was sick, man! Like I didn’t go to sleep ‘till like 4 o’clock because I was sick, everybody else was sick that we let that slip. But you know we need those games like that. Like last year, we had a game like that earlier in the season versus Oklahoma City,” said Randle.

He referenced last January’s 101-89 loss to a young, tanking Thunder team following a three-game win streak capped by a 112-100 pummeling of the Utah Jazz two nights earlier.

He felt they let that slip away on their homecourt just like they did Sunday night against Orlando, where they lacked the energy to finish the game after racing to a 13-point lead in the first half and another nine-point lead in the second half.

“We just respond and that’s the thing about this league, thinking about the high-character teams. It’s okay to have adversity. [It’s okay] to have slip-ups. It’s about how you respond,” Randle said.

Randle responded to the challenge after bricking that shot against two Sixers defenders midway. He switched gears.

In the next play, after crossing the midcourt following a defensive rebound, Randle did something that threw off the Sixers’ defense. He passed the ball to Kemba Walker and set a screen to free his point guard from Danny Green. Walker darted to the left wing inside the arc and met Joel Embiid, who sagged down, anticipating a drive. But instead of falling to the trap, Walker went to his pet move — a 16-foot pull-up jumper. It was his first basket after missing all his three shots in the opening quarter.

Randle unlocked Walker.

Walker suddenly regained his All-Star form. He unloaded 10 straight points in a two-and-a-half-minute stretch, and the Knicks blew the game away with a commanding 17-point lead.

Walker would finish with 19 points on 15 shots, five three-pointers and five assists — all season-high. Randle assisted on Walker’s three shots and set several screens that did not reflect on the box score.

Randle would finish with seven assists, 16 points on 17 shots, and 11 rebounds.

In their heartbreaking home loss to Orlando, Randle had a monster night — 30 points and 16 rebounds. But it took him 24 shots to take there, and he had his fewest assists of the young season with only three. As a whole, the Knicks issued a season-low 20 assists.

It was not just a mere coincidence that they lost. It was the culprit. The ball stopped moving.

In the Knicks’ three wins, Randle averaged 7.7 assists, and the team shared 28.3 dimes that would have tied the unbeaten Golden State Warriors for the second-best mark in the league.

Despite the Knicks’ 2-1 start, Walker looked lost on offense, averaging just 10.3 points across 25.7 minutes, with a team-worst -17 plus-minus rating. During that span, Walker’s usage rate had not reached past 19 percent. That changed dramatically against the Sixers. Walker ended up with a team-high 27.1 percent usage rate. In contrast, Randle posted his lowest usage rate of the season at 23.8 percent. In the Knicks’ first three games, Randle’s usage rate did not go lower than 30 percent.

Randle flipped the script and went out of his way to involve Walker more on offense.

Randle made a total of 25 passes to Walker that resulted in three assists. In the previous three games, Randle only had one assist to Walker out of 54 passes.

“I thought the way Kemba played helped set the tone. Julius was unbelievable in terms of making plays early. That made us unselfish and we all got into a rhythm and we played hard,” Thibodeau praised.

Walker came home to New York with the intention to blend in and play off Randle’s game the same way he did in Boston, acknowledging that it’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s team.

In his first signature game in Knicks uniform, Walker carried the Knicks’ offense as much as his teammates carried him.

“I was just trying to take whatever the [Sixers] defense kind of gave me. My teammates did an unbelievable job — just setting screens for me, you know, Taj and Mitch even Julius. They always had some great screens for me, I was able to get to my pull-ups and they were just dropping,” Walker said.

Randle remains the hub of the Knicks’ offense. Walker and Fournier were brought in to ease his burden and avoid the pitfalls of their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks that came back to haunt him and the Knicks in their first loss of the season at the hands of the Magic.

Once he realized that, everything clicked for the Knicks and his brand new point guard.

“We’re a team, man,” Randle said after the emphatic win over the Sixers. “Like any night, anybody can get hot. Everybody can score and make plays. That’s what this team was built to do. It’s great, man! I don’t have to go and get 30 to feel like we got a chance to win. As long as we defend, we have a shot to win every game.”

It finally dawned on him. He holds the key to unlocking the real potential of this new-look Knicks team. It was always in his pocket.

When Randle rammed into the Sixers’ defensive wall, he finally reached down his pocket.

Walker and the Knicks’ offense got unlocked. It was a beautiful sight to see. The ball movement led to easy baskets. And they feed off that energy playing for each other like a puppet on strings, moving in one direction. The puppet master, Thibodeau, pumped his fist in the air as the Knicks act had the Garden rocking.

“It’s just a great weapon. When we’re sharing the ball like that, it makes it hard for anybody to defend us. It just makes the game a lot easier. It just takes a lot of pressure off the guys especially guys like Julius who kind of has to do a lot sometimes,” Walker said. “That’s what we’re here for. We want to take the pressure off him. Get him some easy opportunities and then play off him as well.”

After that airball in the second quarter and letting Walker do his thing, Randle would knock down five of his next nine shots, and the Knicks cruised to an easy win against a team picked to go deep in the playoffs.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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