CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jalen Brunson has a challenge for anyone facing him.
The New York Knicks point guard is without his co-star, Julius Randle, who is sidelined with a dislocated shoulder. An offense built around two 20-plus point scorers must reconfigure — and not just because the Knicks are losing Randle’s scoring. They also must cope with everything else the big man brings.
Randle is a slasher, a wrecking ball zipping to the basket. The Knicks constructed an offense with him in mind. He can dominate on his own — and he did just that over New York’s first 46 games while building a case to make his third All-Star team in four seasons. He’s a safety net for Brunson and the team’s fiercest scorer around the hoop. And because Randle can pulverize just about any defender one-on-one, he’s responsible for many of the Knicks’ easy, spot-up 3-pointers, which he sets up with 98 mph cross-court whips out of double teams.
Now, the team has none of what Randle produces, at least for the immediate future.
Randle is expected to miss “at least a few weeks” with the dislocated shoulder, The Athletic reported Monday. He’s still awaiting medical opinions on the injury but at the moment, the Knicks are optimistic he will not need season-ending surgery, league sources said. Considering the hard fall he took Saturday when he got fouled flying for a layup and landed on his right shoulder, popping it out of place, the news could have been worse.
The two-time All-Star may return before the playoffs, in time for a team that was the league’s hottest at the time he went down to heat up again.
Randle missed his first game Monday, when New York had no problem downing the hapless Charlotte Hornets, 113-92. But life won’t always come against the dregs of the NBA. And so to the rest of the league, Brunson has a request.
“I’m gonna tell the defense to double me,” he said. “So that I can do the same thing Julius does.”
Surely, even if they never receive his formal request, defenses will now surround Brunson.
Brunson will see more traps once the Knicks meet more credible fortresses than the ones they sliced apart in Charlotte. Defenders will flock at him. Once he infiltrates the lane, they will suffocate him. Heck, that was the case even when Randle was around. Now, without his preferred outlet alongside him, opponents will have no issue rushing the head of the snake.
“Whatever it takes,” Brunson said. “We’ll find a way.”
No matter how Brunson performs during this stretch without Randle, continuing to steamroll the rest of the NBA will take an upswing from more than just one person.
Randle’s absence means figuring out new ways to uncover offense. It means others, such as the big men and Josh Hart, crashing the boards. It means one of the NBA’s most-physical squads no longer has one of its most brute forces.
The Knicks will continue to impose themselves onto anyone in their way. They just need to do it differently.
“No one person is gonna step in and give you 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “But collectively, we can. That’s gotta be where our focus lies. We have to rely on our defense, our rebounding, sharing the ball. And if everyone does that, we’ll find a way to win.”
At least no one is tossing the Knicks into the deep end.
They began their Randle-less existence with a blowout of the uninspired Hornets on a night when they also didn’t have OG Anunoby, who went through shootaround and his pregame warmup but was a late scratch after an elbow injury flared up less than an hour before tipoff. The team officially listed him as out with elbow inflammation. There was more, too. Isaiah Hartenstein is still on a playing-time restriction and ran for only 16 minutes during the win.
But the Hornets are at the bottom for a reason.
Brunson went for 32 points and seven assists; Donte DiVincenzo went for 28 points, six boards and five assists; Hart filled up the box score with eight points, 12 rebounds and seven dimes; and the Knicks demolished Charlotte in the second half.
They have six consecutive home games upcoming, enough time to iron out inevitable adjustments.
The most obvious ones will come on offense. Randle is averaging 24.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists. The Knicks score 9.7 more points per 100 possessions when he’s in the game, according to Cleaning the Glass.
“(Without Randle), you play simple basketball, and you attack the rim hard,” DiVincenzo said. “There’s not soft guys that are fancy and all that stuff (on this team). Everybody is a hard-nosed dude, tries to attack the rim. If they don’t have it, try to kick it out. If you’re open, shoot the ball. So I don’t think you change your identity at all. I think the main thing is it needs to be a collective effort.”
Josh Hart with the Julius Randle fastball type pass lol pic.twitter.com/w2GvKzuMft
— KnicksNation (@KnicksNation) January 30, 2024
Randle’s injury comes at a pivotal time. The Knicks are the NBA’s hottest team, winners of seven straight and 13 of their past 15, which has vaulted them to fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The defense has been the best in the league since Anunoby arrived on New Year’s Day. They just reeled off their first 13-win month in 29 years — and they still have one more January match remaining.
Of course, that’s not the only reason this part of the NBA calendar can be highly stressful. The Feb. 8 trade deadline arrives next week. And whether or not a team has its prime-aged, multi-time All-Star is imperative to roster building.
If further testing confirms today’s optimism that Randle won’t need surgery and is likely to return before the regular season ends, league sources say it won’t affect the Knicks’ approach to the deadline. Their priority remains to find another option on offense behind Brunson. Ever since making the trade for Anunoby — which sent two staples of the reserve lineups, RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley to the Toronto Raptors — they have struggled to score while Brunson is on the bench. With Randle gone, the burden on Brunson only becomes heavier.
One way to make up for the offense is on the other end of the court.
The Knicks started Hart and Precious Achiuwa in place of Randle and Anunoby against the Hornets. Thibodeau said Monday night that Anunoby has a chance to play Tuesday against the Utah Jazz and is day to day. Once their defensive stopper returns, Hart stepping in for Randle makes the Knicks smaller, but it could also rev up a defense that’s already stifling any feeble foe that wanders into its path.
New York doesn’t play high-risk schemes defensively, but placing Hart next to Anunoby and DiVincenzo would give the group three ball hawks in its first unit.
“We don’t really talk about it,” Hart said. “But we know we all like to kind of get in the open floor, and obviously to do that you gotta get steals, rebounds, force bad shots and then just kinda play to your strengths. So that’s kinda what we wanna do. We have guys out there like that. We’re able to play to our strengths.”
All the stops could be the best method to generate buckets on the other end.
Thibodeau is encouraging the group to run. Hart, in particular, pushes the pace whenever he snags rebounds or steals.
The Knicks don’t need to turn every possession into a fast break, but they could benefit from rushing five drained opponents down the court and hoping the defense matches up improperly. Forcing a small onto a big or a big onto a small gives the Knicks an avenue to attack.
Without Randle, they will need every advantage they can get.
“That’s an All-Star. It’s hard to make up for an All-Star,” DiVincenzo said. “First and foremost, you can’t do it. (It) doesn’t matter who you plug in. You’re not going to do it with one person. Jalen has to play better. I have to play better. Josh, OG, Isaiah, all the way down. Deuce (Miles McBride), QG (Quentin Grimes). I think Precious is playing really well for us. I just think everybody needs to step up.”
(Photo of Jalen Brunson and Cody Martin: Sam Sharpe / USA Today)