How much did Julius Randle’s ankle factor into his Knicks playoff woes?

May 12, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) defends New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) in the first half during game six of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports
May 12, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) defends New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) in the first half during game six of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports /

The New York Knicks suffered a 4-2 defeat in the 2023 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals at the hands of the Heat. Following the series loss, numerous fans took to social media platforms, primarily Twitter, pointing fingers at Julius Randle as the main contributor to the team’s downfall.

However, it has now come to light that Randle’s ankle injury was more severe than initially believed, potentially shedding light on his playoff performance struggles.

When Randle first sprained his ankle against the Heat in the regular season on March 29, the chances of him returning to the playoffs at full strength seemed slim. Yet, he managed to make his way back into the lineup, albeit with subpar performances, as the Knicks triumphed over the favored Cavaliers in five games.

Unfortunately, the victory came at a cost when Randle re-aggravated his ankle injury early in Game 5. Nevertheless, he pushed through the pain and returned for Game 2 against the Heat. Surprisingly, Randle had a solid outing, helping the Knicks tie the series at 1-1.

Despite this positive performance, the Knicks ultimately lost the series in six games, with Randle averaging 18.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 4.0 turnovers, shooting 41.1% from the field, 28.1% from three-point range, and 71.4% from the free-throw line.

So, now that we know Randle’s shooting struggles may have been influenced by his severe ankle injury, does this absolve him of blame? During the playoffs, Randle faced significant criticism, but were these critiques unfair or justified? The answer lies in the complexities of the situation.

Was it fair to critique Knicks’ Julius Randle after his playoff performance?

Poor Shooting

Poor shooting is not uncommon in playoff basketball. Players can still contribute positively even on off-shooting nights. For instance, in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant shot 6-of-24 from the field, yet the Lakers emerged victorious. It is challenging to argue that Bryant made no contributions that night. However, it is important to assess the quality of shot attempts rather than solely focusing on shooting percentages.

One of the major flaws in Randle’s game is his tendency to rely on isolation plays, often disrupting the flow of the offense. He frequently dribbles or pump fakes before taking perimeter shots, allowing defenders to recover and contest his attempts. This approach creates two issues: It disrupts the team’s offensive rhythm and decreases the likelihood of efficient shots, as defenders can rotate and set up, reducing the probability of a made shot.

Another criticism is Randle’s inclination to settle for tougher shots, particularly in the midrange. While he can connect from that range at times, his consistency is lacking. In the regular season, Randle shot 42.5% from 10 feet to just before the three-point line. While not terrible, it is debatable whether this method of offense is efficient for a player with the highest usage rate on the team.

While it’s evident that Randle’s ankle injury hindered his shooting ability, it’s important to note that the criticisms he faced were not solely based on his playoff performance. These concerns were consistent throughout the regular season and carried over into the playoffs.

There are multiple ways to positively impact the game while shooting poorly from the floor. The poor shooting can be excused but the bad offensive habits are definitely a pain point that must be addressed in the offseason.

Poor Defense

It is difficult to determine with certainty. An ankle sprain can undoubtedly affect lateral movement and reaction time. However, there were occasions when his lack of effort was apparent, evident in his body language after plays.

The criticisms of low effort on certain plays may hold true, but it is also unfair to expect the same defensive performance from an injured player. While Randle is aware of the plays he took off, it remains essential for him to address these shortcomings and make necessary adjustments.

Poor Coaching

On the coaching front, Tom Thibodeau’s decision to shorten the rotation and bench players like Derrick Rose and Evan Fournier was commendable and contributed to the team exceeding expectations.

The ISO-centric offense employed by Thibodeau was understandable given the team’s roster limitations, and putting the ball in the hands of Jalen Brunson proved effective in generating perimeter opportunities. Although the team struggled to convert those shots, the attempts themselves were justifiable based on their potential success rate.

However, Thibodeau’s coaching shortcomings lay in his lack of accountability with his star player, Julius Randle. Former Knicks players have confirmed the differing defensive expectations Thibodeau has for Randle. Adjustments to Randle’s style of play should have been made during the playoffs, but none were apparent, and a few poor shooting nights ultimately cost the team the series against the Heat.

Fans do not have insights into what goes on at practice but if exceptions are made for team leaders like Randle, there are faults on both sides. Thibodeau must be able to make adjustments to the game plan next season and Julius Randle must be willing to follow suit with the changes.

Where do the Knicks go from here?

So, where does New York go from here? Is Julius Randle solely responsible for the Knicks’ loss to the Heat? No, there were various factors contributing to the team’s elimination from the playoffs. However, Randle is the statistical leader of the team and carries a significant salary, making him susceptible to criticism. He should be held to a higher standard as the leader of the franchise.

It is important for Knicks fans to appreciate Randle’s willingness to play through injuries, a decision that many NBA players shy away from to prioritize their long-term health. The injury did not reveal anything new about Randle’s game; the same issues existed and were exploited on a bigger stage.

Randle’s contributions during the regular season were instrumental in the Knicks reaching the playoffs. He made a positive impact and deservedly earned a place on an All-NBA team. While his efforts should be acknowledged, it is also reasonable to expect more from the franchise’s leader. Both appreciation and higher expectations can coexist as the team moves forward.