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Julius Randle is one player the Knicks can’t afford to lose

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The term Tom Thibodeau uses all the time, just about every game, win or lose, blowout or nail-biter, is this: “Margin of error.”

The Knicks have very little of it. Theirs is a delicate chemistry based on trust and tenacity, a belief they are better as a whole than as individuals, that maybe they care a little more than the other guy on a given night, especially on defense.

But if you want to give that margin a human face, it’s easy to do.

He wears No. 30 on his jersey, and he played in the NBA All-Star Game, and he has become the most indispensable Knick. And with 6 minutes and 41 seconds left in the fourth quarter Tuesday night, Julius Randle went up for a short shot and had the great misfortune of trying to shoot over Dwight Howard.

Howard isn’t the force he used to be, but he is still an imposing presence, still a physical force, still capable of blocking anybody’s shot. He was going to stuff this one, all right, his third of the night, the 2,168th of his career, 13th most of anyone who’s ever played the game. But that was the secondary issue for Randle.

Gravity was No. 1.

And Randle crashed to the court in a heap, unable to break his fall, landing squarely on his hip. It was in that moment that you were allowed to see the rest of the season flash in front of your eyes. Randle is not a one-man show for the Knicks, but he is the engine that makes everything else work, that makes everything else possible.

Julius Randle
Julius Randle
AP

And he didn’t get up right away.

“You’re very concerned when you see a player go down like that,” Thibodeau would say a bit later. “But he’s got a lot of toughness.”

He does. He did. He got back to his feet. Thibodeau asked him if he needed to come out of the game. Randle shook that off.

“You hope for the best because there’s really nothing you can do while you’re falling,” Randle would say. “Initially it hurts. But after that I was fine.”

To that point Randle had 18 points and 14 rebounds and, as has been the case most nights, he was mostly responsible for the Knicks having led the 76ers much of the game. They still led by four, 87-83, when Randle crumpled to the ground. He was already clearly tiring, showing the effects of the business end of a back-to-back.

Though he said he wasn’t affected by the fall, it clearly didn’t help. He scored one point the rest of the way. He grabbed one rebound. The Sixers, even without Joel Embiid, had one last counterpunch and used it, and they would win the game 99-96, and foiled the Knicks from splitting this difficult four-game road trip that kicked off the season’s second half.

“On back-to-back nights we took 1-2 in the East to the wire,” RJ Barrett said of the Knicks’ Nets/Sixers road parlay. “We have to learn from that.”

Randle was less enthused: “I don’t believe in moral victories. It’s a win or a loss for me.”

The good news, for the Knicks, is that Randle remained upright the rest of the way and insisted the fall had no bearing on the rest of the game. Fair enough. Even minus Embiid the Sixers are a formidable outfit, and the Knicks had to be at their best most of the evening to have a shot. They had one. They took it. They move on.

“The games,” Thibodeau said, “keep coming.”

For most of the first half of the season much of the East was a muddled mess. But that’s begun to change. The Heat are 9-1 in their last 10 games, the Hornets and Hawks 7-3, the Bulls 6-4. If the Knicks wish to keep the postseason a part of their agenda, they need to keep up. Most of all, they need to avoid catastrophe. They are already banged up: Mitchell Robinson, Elfrid Payton, Derrick Rose.

Losing Randle would be something else. Losing Randle would be seismic.

So even on a night when the Knicks lost, seeing Randle walk off the floor was a win. The season may not have begun with playoff or play-in aspirations, but those are on the table now. They’re a part of the plan. But only if they can stay whole. And whole means having No. 30 on the floor.

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