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The Knicks couldn’t take the Garden with them to Atlanta for Game 3, couldn’t take the sound and the fury of a city that loves them and would do anything to will them past the Hawks and on to the next round.
All they have Friday night is themselves.
Knicks Against the World.
The narrative changed Friday from every Knick, including Julius Randle, who had never played in a playoff game, to every Knick who had never played in a road playoff game.
Which meant that most of them confront a daunting moment of truth: So far away from their beloved house of worship, can they show up in their new role as villains with enough poise in the noise to hear the exhilarating sounds of silence inside State Farm Arena at the end?
It was no coincidence that the best two Knicks in Game 2, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, have been through countless playoff wars — with other teams, of course. At this time of the year, these are the hardened veterans a coach will trust.
Rose exuded a calm and a comfort and Gibson manifested a relentless and fearless warrior spirit, which coach Tom Thibodeau needed from Randle, more than anyone.
Randle had one quarter — third quarter, Game 2 — in the first two games that resembled the league’s Most Improved Player. Thibodeau time and time again this season referred to Randle as the engine of the Knicks.
For the Knicks to survive and advance, or worst-case scenario, to return to the Garden deadlocked after four games, Thibodeau needs Randle to show up as the Road Warrior.
You cannot be a winning team, much less a champion, in any sport, unless there first is an unshakeable, unbreakable bond between head coach and star player.
Phil Jackson had Michael Jordan as his five-star general with the Bulls. Bill Parcells had Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor. Tom Coughlin had Eli Manning and Michael Strahan. Red Holzman had Willis Reed and Clyde Frazier. Red Auerbach had Bill Russell. Pat Riley had Magic Johnson with the Showtime Lakers and Patrick Ewing with the Knicks. Jeff Van Gundy had Ewing.
“[Thibodeau] has undeniable faith and confidence in each and every one of us,” Randle said. “That means something as a player. I said earlier this year, there’s nobody I would rather go to war with … you know he’s gonna get in the fight with you. I’m loving our relationship, it’s only getting stronger. He’s an amazing coach to play for.”
Everyone knew Randle would draw a crowd after he averaged 37.3 points a game against the Hawks in the regular season, and stalking him with big man Clint Capela and forcing him into baseline J’s did the trick: Randle was 11-for-39 (28 percent) shooting, 4-for-13 from downtown in Games 1 and 2. Randle can do damage on the boards and as a facilitator, but Thibodeau cannot afford to rely on Alec Burks’ Game 1 fourth-quarter explosion, or Reggie Bullock’s Game 2 long-range marksmanship, not to mention the stress on Rose’s 32-year-old legs playing 38 and 39 minutes, respectively. As long as RJ Barrett resigns himself to being Robin, Thibodeau needed Randle to be Batman — the way Trae Young has been Nate McMillan’s Batman.
“Regardless of what other teams are trying to do, just making the right plays,” Randle said of what he has to do.
It’s what he did on a nightly basis during the regular season. The playoffs are a different animal.
“Every possession matters,” Randle said. “It’s everything I expected.”
He is the Knicks’ All-Star, and he needs to play like one starting with Game 3.
“Everything that we’ve done all year that’s helped us win games, we have to have that same mindset, and just have it at a higher intensity level,” Randle said
Thibodeau has always subscribed to this mantra: defense travels in the playoffs. And defense wins championships. But so do stars. One is not enough to win a championship. It’s enough to win a first-round series. And Thibodeau has one.
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