Julius Randle reported to the New York Knicks’ training camp in great shape.
Now he‘s reaping the benefits in what is shaping up to be a career year.
The Knicks rode on their defense and Randle’s triple-double to deal the Cleveland Cavaliers their first loss of the season, 95-86, at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.
With Kevin Love missing the game due to a right calf strain, Randle proved to be too much to handle for the Cavaliers.
Randle played 44 minutes and produced 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists for his seventh career triple-double and first as a Knick.
He started strong and finished stronger.
Randle set the tone on the offensive end with 14 points and five assists in the opening quarter as the Knicks raced to a 29-15 lead. Then the seven-year veteran put the exclamation point with a pullup jumper in the last 23.7 seconds.
Defending the 3
The Cavaliers averaged 122.3 points entering the game, but the Knicks’ stingy defense held them down to their lowest output in four starts. For the second straight game, the Knicks have limited their opponents to just seven triples.
Clearly, Tom Thibodeau is starting to affect a real change within the Knicks.
And it all starts with Randle being eager to become a better leader.
“They challenged me going into the offseason to come back a better player,’’ Randle said postgame.
Last season saw Randle thrown into a leadership role for the first time in his career. Randle didn’t handle it well. The lack of spacing and the dysfunction within the organization exacerbated the situation.
But Thibodeau’s arrival has ushered in a career revival for Randle.
“I’m going to put that pressure on myself as well to challenge myself and get better every year. Last year was a great learning experience for me. But this year, I’m coming back a better player and came back in great shape,” Randle continued. “And that’s just part of the culture we’re building. We’re competing and not backing down from anybody.’’
Culture of accountability
The culture of accountability that Thibodeau has brought with him is beginning to push the envelope. Suddenly, there is hope.
“I think the first part is [Randle] came into camp in great shape,’’ Thibodeau said. “I saw what type of shape he was in, so I knew he was highly motivated. So I think that’s a big advantage for him. I also think he has a pretty good understanding of his teammates and what their strengths are. And he’s playing unselfishly.’’
After his 11-assist effort, Randle has hiked his assist-average to a career-high 6.3, more than doubling his 3.1 average the past two seasons.
Sharing is caring
Reggie Bullock, often a recipient of a Randle kick-out pass, had 17 points on 5-of-9 three-point shooting.
The constant ball movement that Thibodeau has been preaching has given the Knicks open looks and rhythm shots. Through four games, they are leading the league in three-point accuracy at 45.9 percent, a stunning turnaround after being the fourth-worst last season.
Against the Cavaliers, they made 14 of 25 3s. Randle was 4-for-4 while Elfrid Payton knocked down two as he continued his stellar play.
Payton followed up his epic performance against the Milwaukee Bucks with another brilliant all-around game. He tallied 14 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists as he begins to settle down with the starting role at the backcourt.
Meanwhile, Frank Ntilikina was productive off the bench as Payton’s chief backup. The Frenchman was all over the court, putting together five points, three boards, two dimes, and two steals in 16 minutes.
RJ Barrett had another rough shooting night (4-of-15) but still found a way to contribute 17 points, seven rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Mitchell Robinson also held his own against Andre Drummond, putting up nine points, 10 rebounds, and two blocked shots.
The Knicks were missing five players forcing Thibodeau to shorten his rotation to eight with his starters playing between 31 minutes (Robinson) and 44 minutes (Randle).
Rookies Immanuel Quickley (hip pointer), Obi Toppin (right calf strain), Omari Spellman (sore right knee), Austin Rivers (sore groin), and Dennis Smith Jr. (left quad contusion) remained on the sickbay.
While the Knicks were red-hot, there were some anxious moments, too, as fatigue took its toll. The Knicks had to buck 25 turnovers to pull off the victory in the opener of their four-game road trip. Two eight-second shot clock violations by the Knicks enabled the Cavaliers to come within seven in the closing minutes.
Randle, who accounted for nine errors, atoned himself by producing the first 20-point triple-double in the Knicks history since Carmelo Anthony in 2012. That season also marked the last time the Knicks advanced to the playoffs.
The Knicks will continue their road trip in Tampa Bay, the temporary home of the Toronto Raptors. The Knicks will go for a third straight win against the still winless Raptors on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET.
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