The Knicks close the calendar year with their top gun, Julius Randle, sidelined for the first time this season against the Thunder.
It was a hectic 2021 for the New York Knicks (17-18). For a franchise that reached its first playoff berth in close to a decade, earning home court in the first round, 2021 has also been disappointing as the team looks to close the calendar year at .500.
On the third game of a four-bout road trip, the Knicks are in Oklahoma City on New Year’s Eve to match up with the Thunder (12-22) for the first of their annual two tilts with OKC. New York is currently riding probably the ugliest three-game winning streak in recent memory, downing multiple COVID-impacted teams in mostly low-scoring affairs while problems continue to present themselves along the way. The Knicks beat the Atlanta Hawks on Christmas Day at Madison Square Garden without Trae Young. They beat the Minnesota Timberwolves on the road with Mitchell Robinson as the leading scorer with 14 points and all 10 players scoring between that and six, collectively shooting 41.1% from the floor.
Then the Knicks faced the Detroit Pistons again, this time in the Great Lake State, and their starting lineup was beaten up by Saddiq Bey, Hamidou Diallo, and essentially a team of G Leaguers while Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart, and others were sidelined by COVID-19 health and safety protocols. The win drew the Knicks closer to .500, but it did absolutely nothing to quell concerns about last year’s All-Star Julius Randle, for one, a minutes-heavy Kemba Walker, who has cooled down in his time since Derrick Rose went down with ankle surgery, and an inefficient RJ Barrett.
Once again it has been the bench piecing together comebacks and salvaging deficits created by the starters. (Wednesday night Quentin Grimes started in place for Evan Fournier, a late scratch with a right ankle sprain and questionable tonight. Still, four of five of the regular starters.) We’ve spilled plenty of ink about this, and even less than a week ago I wrote about how Tom Thibodeau is returning to his Game 1 starting lineup with Walker reinstated, maybe to different results with a reenergized Kemba.
Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” He didn’t really say that, but it’s the internet age, so quotes can be attributed to whomever. Should the Knicks make a lineup change? I would say yes, but I would qualify that answer by offering a different solution—resting Julius Randle. Unfortunately, due to other circumstances, Randle will miss tonight’s game as he entered the league’s COVID health and safety protocols on Thursday.
Additionally, Randle told available reporters in Detroit on Wednesday that he’s “nicked up,” per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. The extent of any injuries from which Randle is suffering is unknown. It’s the NBA and we’re nearly halfway through the season. The long-held belief in the Association is everybody is dealing with one injury or another at this point. However, this stretch of the schedule could do with Randle resting. Perhaps let him off the hook until the home-and-home with Boston next week. This would give Obi Toppin a chance to spread his wings with an increased minutes load (we all know how much better the offense looks with Toppin racing down the floor), and perhaps open backup minutes for Kevin Knox, who looked semi-promising as a three-point valve when half the team was out in protocols.
Anyway, before we get to the Thunder, 2021 was a fun one, too, both for the Knicks and here at The Knicks Wall. We celebrated covering the team in the playoffs for the first time since any of us were here. You’ll see early draft coverage soon, but we didn’t even have to address that in 2021 in truth (admittedly a creative time, too, for us to write) until June. The Knicks could probably make the playoffs if they finish at .500 or a few games above, so hopefully, we get to cover that again; 2021 wasn’t all bad.
What’s Up With OKC
The Thunder are coming off a loss in Phoenix on Wednesday, actually making it a ball game until the fourth quarter when a four-point deficit tilted further towards the Suns’ favor with a 30-16 round in the final frame. OKC has a bona fide star-in-the-making-if-not-already-made (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), who won the Player of the Week honors in the West in the same announcement as Kemba Walker last week. Gilgeous-Alexander missed the Suns game with ankle soreness—a late scratch. We’ll see if he plays.
After the Canadian guard on the OKC roster, it’s … a lot of other pieces. Other major contributors include fellow Canadian Luguentz Dort (nine points on 18 shots on Wednesday), Darius Bazley, and Josh Giddey, the sixth overall pick of the 2021 draft (and a favorite of TKW Draft SZN’s Jess Reinhardt). Bazley and Giddey are in COVID-19 health and safety protocols as of Monday and Tuesday, respectively, joining Tre Mann, Aleksej Pokusevski, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
The Thunder are one of the worst shooting teams in the league—a few tenths away from the worst team-scoring average, currently held by Detroit. They’re the second-worst field-goal shooting team and worst three-point shooting team. If the Knicks don’t come out and put some points on the board early, then this is going to be a rock fight, plain and simple. What was particularly infuriating on Wednesday against the Pistons, was the obvious change in effort and attitude when New York’s bench was present on the hardwood compared to the starters. Perhaps without their leader Randle for a change, the Knicks will show up sooner and more often against the young Thunder squad.
The last game of 2021 for the Knicks tips off at 8 p.m. ET from Paycom Center in Oklahoma City, with MSG Network and Bally Sports Oklahoma airing the matchup. Otherwise, please have a safe and happy New Year’s and follow live coverage on TKW’s Twitter before the game recap here.
UPDATE: 6:40 p.m. ET.
Gilgeous-Alexander will start for the Thunder, per Newsday‘s Steve Popper, while Obi Toppin is starting for Randle at power forward. Fournier is a game-time decision.