Randle returns as the Knicks claim a "great team win" in Game 1.

Randle returns as the Knicks claim a “great team win” in Game 1.

As the New York Knicks approached Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, they hoped Julius Randle would be able to play.

After spraining his left ankle against the Miami Heat on March 29, there was considerable doubt about whether the All-Star forward would be ready to start the series. Anyone who has seen him in recent days and knows the sort of drive he has shown night in and night out all season had no doubts about what would happen Saturday night.

For those who knew him well, the fact that Randle scored 19 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and threw out four assists in over 34 minutes and helped push the tough-minded squad to a 101-97 Game 1 triumph was less of a surprise and more of a foreshadowing.

“The people that are around him, we all know, you’re going to get everything he has,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “Julius played in 77 games before spraining his ankle… you’ll get everything he has.” I knew if he could go, he would. Julius is his name.”

Randle said after the game that he was sure he’d be able to play again as he continued to rehab his ankle. He gave Thibodeau precisely what he wanted, a driving force behind the Knicks’ 51-38 rebounding edge against a Cavs club that didn’t have enough answers down the line.

“Every day, I got like significantly better,” Randle remarked. “So I figured by the time Saturday rolled around, I’d be fine.”

While Randle offered a scoring lift throughout the game, his most important play came with the Knicks behind by 99-97 with less than 10 seconds remaining in regulation. With 9.1 seconds remaining, Knicks player Jalen Brunson missed a 22-foot shot, but Randle grabbed the rebound, and Knicks guard Quentin Grimes was fouled a few seconds later and clinched the game with two crucial free throws.

Randle’s coaches and teammates all expressed how much of an emotional boost it was to have their big guy back on the court.

“He’s a presence,” Brunson observed. “It may not be firing… Obviously, he can do it all, but the offensive rebound was enormous, and the small things he has committed to doing have been wonderful. It helps us — some of the things he performs may not appear on the stat sheet, but they are significant.”

Aside from Randle’s return, the Knicks received contributions from all around the court in Saturday’s victory. Brunson overcame some early foul problems to finish with 27 points, including several clutch baskets down the line.

With 17 points and 10 rebounds, including a critical three-pointer with 1:49 remaining in regulation, Josh Hart provided a major boost off Thibodeau’s bench. Hart’s performance was even the more amazing considering that he was playing in his first postseason game.

The New York bench outscored Cleveland’s bench 37-14, which is why Randle was quick to credit the whole team’s effort while admitting he was a touch tired after missing almost three weeks.

“I was tired as hell, for sure,” Randle said. “But it’s because of this that we have such a great team.” I’m able to count on the guys, JB, Josh [Hart], everyone, to help each other out, so I just go out there, do my best, and let the cards fall where they may. Just trust the teammates, and that was a fantastic team victory.”

It was the kind of triumph that has characterised Thibodeau’s coaching career, made all the more amazing by the fact that the Knicks did it when Randle was still not playing or feeling like himself.

“Dependability is a big part of the league,” said Thibodeau. “And because we need to be able to rely on one another, we don’t want anyone injured out there.” We don’t want to endanger anybody, but if you can offer us anything, give us what you have, and that’s what I admire Julius for. He gave us all he had.”

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