CLEVELAND – Julius Randle made enough saves for one last jump. He knew he was in it, too.
He began tracking the basketball as soon as teammate Jalen Bronson spiked for a jump on the other side of the court. With less than 10 seconds left and the New York Knicks holding on to a two-point lead, whatever energy is still in those legs will go into one last jump. Basketball bounced off the rim. Randle stepped up for it, caught it 10 feet above the court and pointed it at Quentin Grimes, who clinched the Knicks’ first playoff win in two years with two free throws.
New York now leads Cleveland 1-0 in the first-round series after a 101-97 victory Saturday night.
Randle was not perfect on his comeback from a sprained left ankle. He missed 13 of 20 shots and scored only three points in the second half after going off shooting. Heck, he even took a risk trying what is now the biggest offensive rebound in a season full of big plates. Since Cavaliers quarterback Evan Mobley in charge of guarding Randle stayed away from him so far to mark Bronson, Randle had a pass to the hoop. If he didn’t come up with the ball, the Knicks would have been vulnerable to a fast break.
But he got it. Because that’s what all stars do. Need a play, and they’ll make it — bad ankle and all.
“It was just about winning the game at that point,” said Randle, who finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. “I don’t think JB will miss, but if he does, get the glass, and try to win the game.”
From the outside, it was not clear if Randle would participate in the first match. The last time he played was on March 29, when he injured his ankle against the Miami Heat. He has never undergone contact training in practice. Nicks mentioned him as questionable coming into the evening.
This wasn’t Randel’s typical experience, even when the team considered it a good idea to go less than an hour before a tip-off.
Usually, Randle plays for at least nine minutes. Sometimes, it will stay on for the entire first quarter. On Saturday, coach Tom Thibodeau dismissed him less than five minutes into the game.
“See my breath of air out there today? I was tired. I was definitely very tired,” Randall said. “That’s why we have such a great team. Able to lean on guys: JB, Josh (Hart), everyone. We can take each other.”
Late in the game, Randle would catch Bronson, skating for one final touchdown rebound, his tenth of the evening. Just a play earlier, it was Isaiah Hartenstein who tipped the ball, as Hart fumbled to the perimeter for another second chance, resulting in Bronson floating out at 8 feet.
Leave it to this group to seal their first playoff game in two years with offensive clutch plates. After all, that’s what the Knicks do.
No other team relies more on getting past their mistakes to score. There are moments when the Knicks’ best offense is a clunker, if only because an elusive jumper might be a pass to Hartenstein, Hart, or Mitchell Robinson. I felt that way sometimes in Game 1.
The Cavs are big up front with Mobley and Jarrett Allen, but they’re still vulnerable on the boards.
About half the time the Knicks missed a shot in game one, they got another. They grabbed 17 offensive rebounds – 42 percent from their errors.
“You have to get a body for them,” Thibodeau said. “For us, that’s one of the things we’re doing well. We’ve been a good rebounding team all year. We know that’s a big part of our game. And we’ll have to keep doing that.”
Recovering a collection of your mistakes is a good way to save yourself. Thibodeau repeated the same message during a post-match press conference.
“We know we’re going to have to play a lot better than we did tonight,” he said.
They were hectic early on, as were many Cavs. Bronson committed two early errors, which sent him to the bench. A third foul just minutes into the second quarter sent him to his bench again. Thibodeau mentioned the defensive issues, though he wasn’t specific about the criticism. He may have been referring to the way the team guarded Donovan Mitchell, who scored 38 points and set a pace to pull away from long range.
New York didn’t hit the ball very well. RJ Barrett was only 2 out of 12. Grimes only made 1 shot. Emmanuel Kwikli didn’t make anything. Robinson tried to throw the ball twice, which completely covered the frame.
But they picked each other up. Bronson finished with 27 points in just 29 minutes. Twenty-one of those came in the second half. Josh Hart had 17 points and 10 boards, including five offensive boards, during his first playoff game. Obi Tobin helped New York with a short run in the third quarter after Cleveland looked like they were about to take over.
The Knicks crushed the Cavs in minutes off the bench. What became apparent early on was that Cleveland only trusted seven players. Allen and Darius Garland played almost the entirety of the second half. Mitchell played the entirety of the second half, which ended in poetic fashion—and not just because a group hungry for offensive rebounds recovered a couple more to seal the victory.
It was as if the basketball gods were paying back the Knicks for past misfortune.
Just two years ago, the Knicks lost a similar Game 1 to the Atlanta Hawks. With less than a minute remaining to tie the game, Alec Burks pulled ahead for a potential shot but hit the back of the rim. The ball rebounded to Knicks senior Taj Gibson and Hawks’ Clint Capela, who fought for it so hard that it crept wide into the hands of Trae Young, who gave Atlanta the lead on the ensuing possession.
The Knicks lost that evening and fell in the series in five games.
They hope that the right bounce for them this time will mean a different ending.
“Funny how things are, isn’t it?” Randall said. “Yes, we were in the same situation two years ago…. That experience was important to us. It brought us to this point here. A great first game for us.”
(Photo by Dean Wade and Julius Randle: Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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