Well, this much we can say with a fair amount of confidence:
It isn’t all No. 30’s fault.
The wreckage of this 2021-22 Knicks season can’t be draped exclusively around Julius Randle’s shoulders, and it can’t be dumped entirely at his feet. Logically, you would think most Knicks fans understood, and understand, that. But when you’ve clinched a losing season 10 days before April Fool’s Day, logic doesn’t play much into the equation.
When a 10-point fourth-quarter lead dissolves under the reality — make it the inevitability — of a 22-6 run, and when the Hawks nudge themselves to .500 with a 117-111 victory, reason isn’t the first emotion of choice.
Randle didn’t play Tuesday night. There were large swatches of the game where it didn’t seem the Knicks missed him. But there were larger patches, and the essential ones, where the Knicks looked exactly as they have all year with him or without him.
“We’re short-handed,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It’s not only Julius. We’re missing Derrick [Rose]nerlens [Noel]. And it gives other guys an opportunity.”
It’s best for Randle that things went as they did, or else the factions of Knicks fans on talk radio and social media would have been cranked to 11 on Wednesday. And, really, all it would have done was obscure the harsh reality the Knicks must already have come to terms with — players, coaches, brass.
They desperately need to be fixed. But won’t be a simple fix. The Knicks fell six out of the final play-in game. There are 10 games left in the season.
“The position we’re in, they’re all must-have games,” Thibodeau said. “But you’re not eliminated until you’re eliminated.”
Let the arithmetic argue differently. It has been time for weeks to view the Knicks through the prism of next year and the years to come, not in the present tense. The Knicks need to do more than rid themselves of one star player, if that’s even on Leon Rose’s to-do list. There is a dearth of skill on this roster. There are some gems. There is an imminent franchise foundation piece in RJ Barrett (30 points, 13 rebounds).
But there is still so much broken about this team. The Garden was sold out Tuesday night but it hardly felt that way; after dropping 45 on the Knicks Trae Young, the modern Reggie Miller, said nonchalantly, “It wasn’t that loud in here.”
It wasn’t. And think about it:
A mere 303 days before, this had been the hottest ticket in town and these were the two teams on everyone’s tongues. It was a Sunday, just like the old days, and it felt like the old days at Madison Square Garden, whether your definition of “old days” is the ’90s or the ’70s (or both).
“You can feel the electricity,” Thibodeau said that afternoon. “This is what it’s supposed to feel like in here.”
It started to go all wrong for the Knicks that Sunday night at the Garden, Young introducing himself as Reggie 2.0 and the Hawks stealing Game 1, a prelude to a five-game gentleman’s sweep. With the blessing of hindsight it is easy now to look at that Hawks series and see exactly what was coming for the Knicks.
After playing splendid defense all year, the Hawks got whatever they wanted against the Knicks (in May, and again Tuesday night). Young was everywhere, and he was fearless, even as the Garden tried to get in his head (in May, and again Tuesday night). And perhaps most puzzling of all, Thibodeau seemed unable to figure out the buttons to push to make things roll the other way. In May. On Tuesday night. And, really, across so much of this rolling-blackout disappointment of a season.
“We’ve had a sense of urgency all year,” Barrett said. “We just fight. Some of these games have slipped away but there’s nothing else to do except get better every day.”
And be better next year. Rose has to see this still falls under the category of “profound rebuild.” Simply making Julius Randle disappear might’ve allowed Knicks fans to max out on endorphins by making one man pay for this misery. Couldn’t do that Tuesday night. Can’t do that this summer if Rose wants to fix this mess.
And man. Does it need fixing.