Julius Randle grabbed the ball, took a couple of high, exaggerated dribbles, and then fired an underhanded heave the length of the floor and into the crowd. It was his way of exhaling, his way of saying the Knicks had finally won the damn thing.
An emotionally spent Garden crowd was saying it right along with him.
No, this game never should have gone into single overtime, never mind double overtime. The Knicks were up 11 with fewer than four minutes to play in regulation, and then they got cute, they got careless, and they got caught by a flawed Boston Celtics team that was fixing to steal the home team’s thunder on opening night.
Randle sank two foul shots to give the Knicks a three-point lead with 4.8 seconds left, and that should have been that. But as the Celtics scrambled to go the length of the floor, Kemba Walker, 31-year-old Knicks rookie, made a rookie mistake and left Marcus Smart open from behind the 3-point line. The hometown kid sent his hometown into a tizzy in his first NBA home game at the Garden, and turned the night into a mad free-for-all that would inevitably end up in Randle’s hands.
“We asked Julius to do a lot in that game,” Tom Thibodeau said after Knicks 138, Celtics 134. The Knicks ask Julius to do a lot in every game. Thibodeau talked about Randle chasing around Jaylen Brown, and facilitating the offense, and hitting the boards.
“That’s what I love about him,” the Knicks coach said, “how hard he works each and every day and what he gives you in a game. He gives you everything he has.”
And that’s a truckload. Randle missed a 26-footer near the end of the first overtime, but made up for it inside the final two minutes of the second, with the Knicks down one. He converted a driving layup, got fouled, and made the free throw to give his team the two-point lead. Evan Fournier would drain his sixth 3, and Derrick Rose would score to give the Knicks a four-point lead with 22 seconds to go, before the game’s final rebound fittingly landed in the hands of Randle, the same franchise player for the new Knicks that he was for the old Knicks.
On a night when Fournier scored 32 in his debut, and when Obi Toppin and RJ Barrett changed the game with their dynamic, open-court athleticism, Randle was still Randle. He finished with 35 points, nine assists, and eight rebounds. He also committed seven turnovers, and missed his share of looks he should have converted.
“I could have made the game easier, but I didn’t,” he said.
That’s OK; it was that kind of mid-October game in the Garden. A lot of rust, a lot of nervousness, and a lot of unforced errors that need to be fixed sooner rather than later.
“It was crazy,” Fournier said.
Randle remained the relative rock in that storm. After he delivered a breakthrough season that was dented — but not too badly — by his playoff performance against Atlanta, Randle signed a deal for $117 million. Though the Knicks brought in two new starters, Walker and Fournier, Randle would still be the centerpiece. He would still be the biggest reason the Knicks either won or lost.
“Julius had that monster year, got a new contract and all that,” Thibodeau said, “and he’s hungrier now than last year, which I thought was impossible. He comes in every night like clockwork. You know he’s going to be in there.”
Thibodeau’s Knicks are card-carrying grinders, players willing to be developed. Toppin reminded everyone Wednesday night why he was a first-round pick in the first place, racing ahead of the Celtics on the break and swooping through the air with that 7-foot-2 wingspan of his while lesser men cleared out of his way.
Toppin upped the ante on his projected upside, and looked awfully comfortable playing ball alongside Randle, a combination that Thibodeau barely used last year.
“It was nice to see he and Julius build some chemistry together,” Thibodeau said.
It was just as nice to see Randle do the things All-Star big men are supposed to do.
“I thought Julius was Julius,” Thibodeau said.
“He’s special,” added Walker. “He was unbelievable.”
Randle admitted that he is capable of better, cleaner play, and promised to learn from the tape. “But the name of the game is to win the game,” he said, “so that’s what we did.”
The Knicks did indeed win after nearly folding, and Randle punctuated the occasion by heaving the ball into the crowd. It’s still his ball, his team and, after changing the Knicks’ regular-season fortunes, his mission to change their postseason fortunes, too.