Julius Randle, the Most Improved Player of Game 2

Note: this post was originally published for The Strickland. Give them a click!

Julius Randle has not been himself.

The Knicks’ newly minted star put up just 15 points in each of Games 1 and 2, the first time all season long he scored 15 or fewer in back to back games. He clearly hasn’t looked himself, and whether it’s the Hawks or himself, somebody has been in his head. However, midway through game 2, Randle made some concrete adjustments that could change the course of the series – or at the very least, force the Hawks to go back to the drawing board.

The first half of Game 2, however, wasn’t it.

This is a shot we’ve seen him make over and over again this season: the stepback toward the right baseline. It was his most common shot location all year long:

On this night, though, an airball. Clyde noted after the play that Julius was “in disarray; not a good sign, folks.”

On the next possession, he had 6 seconds on the clock guarded by Bogdan Bogdanovic, and meekly attempted to draw a foul. Back to back airballs:

His effort was lacking, too. After the following time down, Randle had Bogdan Bogdanovic on him:

But allowed him to leak out even after a made basket, somehow the fourth Knick down the court to watch the open layup:

Not exactly playoff intensity!

A couple of plays later, he’s isolated with space on the perimeter against Bogdanovic, who actually forces him left. Randle declines to attack the basket, instead deciding to post up at the elbow. Not necessarily a bad decision, as the Hawks were forced to double. That left Rj Barrett, who has been money from the right corner all season, wide open:

It’s a read that Randle’s made easily all season long, but here, he dwindled time, drifted toward the base line, the passing lane disappeared, and he eventually stepped out of bounds:

That was essentially the last we saw of Randle for the quarter. The Knicks’ regular season MVP headed to the bench down 7, and re-entered down only 3 in the 2nd. He had a nice take about a minute after re-entering to draw a foul on Danilo Gallinari, and headed to the line to register his first point of the game. In the 2nd quarter.

The Hawks responded yet again, with Trae Young hitting a logo triple to put Atlanta up 7 with 3 minutes to go. 

Julius was then asked to do what he’s done all season: create at the end of the shot clock. Among all NBA players this season, Randle ranked number 1 in field goal attempts within the last 4 seconds of the shot clock with 171; he shot a better percentage (39.2%) on those shots than the next two leaders, Luka Doncic (38.1%) and Jayson Tatum (36.5%).

He actually created a pretty solid look here in the corner, but again was just way off:

The next couple of minutes were more of the same – Julius got the ball, the defense hinted at a double, Julius didn’t make the quick read, the Hawks defense rotated, bad shot at the end of the clock.

With 1:37 to go, the Knicks finally sprung him wide open for a 17-footer off an inbounds, and he threw up another brick:

Randle actually wasn’t super effective from that left baseline in the regular season, going just 7/24 from there:

Still, that’s the shot your All-NBA hopeful knocks down when down 13 at home in a near-must-win playoff ballgame. With that miss, Julius was 0-5, with 2 points in 16 minutes.

Next thing you know, another backbreaker three from Trae Young. The Hawks star was up to 20 points at the half. How did the Knicks’ star respond?

Julius got a cupcake matchup in semi-transition against Gallinari, who again allowed him to go to his strong hand. Randle lost his balance, threw up another duck, then fell to the floor. 

The whole “allowed him to go to his strong hand” thing was actually a running theme in the first half.

Much of Randle’s struggles have seemed to be mental – he’s been missing shots (and reads) that we’ve seen him make all season. A lot of how uncomfortable he’s been, though, is the way the Hawks have challenged him. Randle hasn’t really been a driver to the basket all season – while his jump shooting has seen a revolution, under a fifth of his attempts this year came from 0-3 feet.

Nate McMillan and the Atlanta staff have decided: instead of letting Julius set up shop in his office, let him get to his strong hand and then bottle him up with doubles and Clint Capela rim protection.

That took us to the half. The Knicks were down 13. Randle was a -17. He had 1 assist and was 0-6 from the field.

Including his game 1 “performance”, Randle was at that point 6 for his last 29 from the field (20.6%). For perspective, his lowest FG% in any game this regular season was 22%.

Vibes. Not great ones.

The second half MSG broadcast opened with an interview of Kenny Payne by Rebecca Harlow. Rebecca asked about Julius: “What do you see and what are you telling him right now?” Payne responded: “Right now they’re gearing their whole defensive scheme around him. He has to be a facilitator. He has to offensive rebound the ball.”

Randle’s second half would include 3 assists, tied for the most of any player in the half, as well as his sole offensive rebound of the game. 

Things heated up pretty much immediately when play opened back up. Tom Thibodeau seemingly wanted to clear some of the offensive congestion, making the massive decision to start Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, not only his trusted vets, but both better outside shooters than their first half-starting counterparts. 

The Knicks ran a simple screen play for Rose to get Randle an open look from the wing, and Julius set the tone with his first field goal of the game:

On his Knicks Film School podcast, Jon Macri called out this play as his turning point of the game. I’m not sure if my gut went quite as far as thinking the Knicks would win at that point, but something certainly felt good seeing Julius put the ball in the basket.

Just a minute later, the Knicks ran the exact same play. This time, Bogdanovic stuck to Randle, and Rose got a line to drive to the cup for a basket.

Would Rose have had that space available if Randle hadn’t canned the first 3? It’s hard to say for sure – but it couldn’t have hurt!

You could tell Randle’s confidence had gotten a little bit of a boost – a couple possessions later, he brought the ball up and settled right into a pullup 3, and although it didn’t go down, it was his first early-clock attempted triple of the game.

Remember that time in the first half when he missed a shot and then failed to get back in transition, leading to an easy layup? 

Callback! An excellent recovery this time from Randle to break up the pass, and it lead right to a D-Rose triple.

A couple of possessions later, New York went right back to that high 1-4 pick-and-roll to test Bogdanovic and DeAndre Hunter. The first time, Randle got and made an open three. The second time, Rose got an open driving lane. This time, the Hawks switched, and Randle got the mismatch against Bogdanovic.

You can see the Hawks go right back to ol’ reliable – “force” Randle to his left, where Capela would be waiting to swallow the drive:

However, Randle adjusted. He jab-stepped to his left, but then drove hard middle. You can see the Hawks defense is now forced into reaction mode instead of plan-executing mode. Bogdanovic and Capela collapsed into each other. John Collins, who was comfortable leaving Rj Barrett wide open on the weak side during the first half (remember that missed read?), now was forced to cheat back toward the corner with Julius creating an easier passing lane. This left Taj Gibson wide open underneath, and Julius immediately made the right play:

Taj had an amazing game, but he hesitated here, allowing Capela to recover for the block. This play won’t show up on Julius’ highlight reel because it didn’t result in an assist, but regardless it’s a nice little microcosm of how a small tweak in approach can change the game – especially in the playoffs, when teams learn each other’s every tendency.

Let’s be clear – it wasn’t all orange and blue skies for Randle in the second half. He still had some head-scratchers; a couple of plays later he dribbled into traffic and threw the ball out of bounds.

However, you could still sense the confidence building. Here, a serendipitous bounce and cash money on the triple, his second of the quarter:

Then a culmination of sorts for Randle – coming right off a made 3, Gallinari presses up here, and Randle is able to get him in the air:

Again now, Randle went middle, and the defense collapse. A strong take and he’s at the free throw line; another productive possession.

How about on the other end? The Hawks get Randle out on an island, and Trae drove right in a play reminiscent to the dagger at the end of Game 1. Randle did what Frank couldn’t, though –  stayed with him all the way, forcing a bad miss:

As a matter of fact, Randle’s defense, one of the more underrated parts of his Most Improved campaign this year, was on point all night. 

Then, right back on the next play with more creation! Again, Randle got Gallo to bite, drove, and kicked a sweet wrap pass out to Rose for the triple:

At this point, it was already clear Randle was playing with a different type of confidence on offense than we had seen to that point in the series. 

So why not more? How about a high screen and roll drive to the cup by your 6’8” jumbo creator?

That made it 9 points in the quarter already for Randle after just 2 all first half, but he wasn’t done – the next 2 put the Knicks ahead for the first time since 7-6:

Notice how again, Randle reversed direction, getting to his right hand, and settling into his wheelhouse for a short pullup J against the smaller defender. Randle had been reluctant to do this in the first half, and the entirety of the first game.

Although another one that won’t show up on the highlight reel, you can see the trend continuing at the end of the quarter with this jab, drive-middle, kick-out to an open Immanuel Quickley in the corner:

At the beginning of the play, all the Hawks wanted to do was see Randle drive left directly into the waiting help:

When he put the defense on its heels the other direction, he actually got three three-point shooters wide open:

Randle was absolutely cooking Gallinari, but the Hawks don’t really have too many other guys that can deal with him one-on-one – there’s a reason Julius averaged 37 a game in 3 regular season matchups vs. Atlanta. If he can force the Hawks to adjust again, it can be a turning point in the series. 

Randle sat for the first 6 minutes of the 4th, which included some impressive minutes for his backup, Obi Toppin. When Randle returned, it was still a 3-point anybody’s game. And he seemed himself down the stretch – drawing a double to kick out for another Reggie Bullock triple to put the Knicks up 5 with 3:26 remaining, 

Then the exclamation point. Under 2 minutes to play, Randle was patient, confident, working the defense, sensing the double again, and delivering underneath to Taj when Capela committed, to essentially wrap the game up:

Overall in the second half, Julius’ line: 13 points on 5-10 FG & 2-5 3PT, with 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 turnovers. It wasn’t perfect, but he was clearly a different player. He put up a +20 after his -17 in the first two frames.

The Knicks are starved for playoff basketball, and there’s been no shortage of entertainment in the first two games of this series. The Hawks came prepared with a gameplan to stop Julius Randle, and for the most part, it’s been working. However, the second half of game 2 spoke volumes, and if the Knicks want to wrap up their first series victory since Boston in 2013, the NBA’s Most Improved Player will have to continue doing just that.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

follow Derek on Twitter @d_reif

follow Corner Three on Twitter @corner3sports

follow The Strickland on Twitter @TheStrickland

cover art by @aighttho

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