In what has been the biggest surprise of the 2020-21 NBA season, Julius Randle has the New York Knicks heading to the playoffs. It will be his first appearance in the playoffs and thus his first time experiencing playoff game-planning.
Randle made his first All-Star team this season and has a strong chance to be selected to one of the three All-NBA teams. The Knicks offense completely revolves around him, as he leads them in scoring (24.0), assists (5.9) and usage (28.3 percent). As he goes on the offensive end so does New York. With him on the court, the Knicks' offensive rating is 110.1, and it's 106.8 with him off the court.
However, there is a distinct difference between game-planning in the regular season and setting a playoff strategy. During the season, it is difficult to put an individual plan in place. That all changes during the playoffs, when coaches hunker down and look for ways to take away what a team or player wants to do.
Randle's ascension this season is going to make him the prime target for teams once the playoffs begin, and how he handles being the focal point will decide the Knicks' playoff fate.
The miniseries—two games in a row against the same opponent—that teams played this season could provide a hint on how Randle dealt with teams adjusting their game plans. The Knicks played three miniseries this season against the Bulls, Wizards and Heat.
In the first game of each series, Randle averaged 28.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the field. The backend of the miniseries was a different story, as he averaged 17.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists and shot 37.0 percent.
One adjustment teams will make will be sending double-teams. According to Synergy Sports, Randle's points per possession in the post is 1.04, with 10.1 percent of those possessions resulting in turnovers. His PPP dropped to 0.98 when teams sent a hard double on him, and his turnover percentage shot up to 17 percent.
Against the Spurs, Randle (6'8", 250 lbs) tried to attack a mismatch by taking Keldon Johnson (6'5", 220 lbs) down to the post. As he turned baseline, Jakob Poeltl was there to take that away. After gathering himself, Randle spotted Reggie Bullock open on the weak side but fired a pass about a foot too high:
A similar situation played out versus the Bulls. Randle posted up Thaddeus Young, and Lauri Markkanen came to double him as he turned baseline. In the process, Young poked the ball away from Randle, which eventually led to a turnover:
The Knicks will surely adjust their game plan in how they use Randle, but the same problem could still exist. Against the Lakers with the game in overtime, New York ran a high pick-and-roll getting Wesley Matthews (6'4", 220 lbs) switched on to Randle at the elbow. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Anthony Davis came to double and forced the turnover:
Randle handled a similar double-team better against the Spurs. While in an isolation situation against Johnson, DeMar DeRozan came over to double at the elbow. This time, Randle stepped through the trap and found RJ Barrett on the wing, who swung it to the corner for an eventual Alec Burks miss. Even though the shot was missed, Randle made the correct read out of the trap:
Playoff preparation covers everything from what a team runs to how a specific player likes to attack. Whoever the Knicks face in the first round will most likely lock in on how to attack Randle defensively. With how poorly he has generally handled double-teams this season, it stands to reason he will see plenty of them all series.
Randle has been an absolute star for the Knicks this season, and his reward will be receiving star treatment in his first-ever playoff appearance.
Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.