Knicks could be without star player for opener against Cleveland

julius randle, knicks
Mar 22, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) guards Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) during a free-throw attempt in the fourth quarter at Miami-Dade Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks are getting closer every day to their opening playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 15. Having lost their final two regular season games, dropping a 141–136 point game to the Indiana Pacers on Sunday afternoon, the Knicks will be looking to bounce back with their starters on the floor against Cleveland.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau had been resting some of his primary pieces, notably Jalen Brunson. However, star power forward Julius Randle has been dealing with a sprained left ankle that required a walking boot as of last week.

Luckily, Randle has begun taking shots on the floor and ramping up his rehabilitation process with five days to go. Nonetheless, there is a strong possibility that Randle isn’t ready just yet for the first game of the series, which would leave Brunson to handle most of the load and reserve PF Obi Toppin to land more minutes.

“Just the next step, following the protocol progression. So making good steady progress,” Thibodeau said on Sunday, per the NY Post. “He’s shooting, but no contact or anything like that. But he’s doing well, overall.”

The Knicks need a healthy Julius Randle:

Randle is having a great 2022–23 season, earning his second All-Star appearance. Over 77 games, he’s averaging a career-high 25.1 points, 10 total rebounds, and 4.1 assists. His turnovers are down to 2.8 per game, his lowest since 2018. The 28-year-old is shooting .343 from beyond the arc and hosts a .459 field-goal percentage, his highest since 2019, and is averaging 18.6 attempts per game, another career high.

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The Knicks are better with Randle on the floor, and they need his services against Cleveland, a physical team that has Evan Mobley end Jarrett Allen dominating in the paint.

If Randle is forced to miss any time, expect Toppin to receive more minutes. The Knicks’ former first-round pick has been excellent lately, scoring 34 points against Indiana on Sunday and 32 points against the Pacers last week. In fact, over his last ten games played, Toppins is averaging 14.2 points, shooting 40.4% from downtown and a 53.9% field goal rate across 23 minutes on average.

Toppin is a catalyst in the transition game and an efficient scorer when given the opportunity, but Randle is objectively better, and they need him healthy for the home stretch. Even if Thibs has to split minutes between Randle and Toppin, they can still get plenty of value that way (to not overwork Randle’s injured ankle).

At the very least, the Knicks expect to have a healthy Jalen Brunson, who can match Donovan Mitchell regarding scoring efficiency. Limiting Mitchell is ideal but a challenging feat.