Knicks’ Julius Randle can be New York champion even without ring

Over a little more than 20 hours in the big city, Julius Randle and Jacob deGrom showed why legacies in sports are often more complicated than we make them out to be. It is quite possible that neither

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Over a little more than 20 hours in the big city, Julius Randle and Jacob deGrom showed why legacies in sports are often more complicated than we make them out to be. It is quite possible that neither the Knicks forward nor the Mets ace will ever ride in a ticker-tape parade.

It is also quite possible that it won’t matter. What deGrom did Friday night at Citi Field, and what Randle did Saturday afternoon in the Garden — hell, what they have done all season — is remind New Yorkers what Patrick Ewing reminded them in the 1990s, and what Don Mattingly reminded them in the 1980s.

You don’t need a ring to be a champion.

The fans chanted “M-V-P” for deGrom just like they chanted “M-V-P” for Randle long before this 120-103 victory over the Raptors that extended the Knicks’ winning streak to nine, their longest in seven years.

Randle contributed 31 points and 10 rebounds to the cause, and went 5-for-7 on 3-pointers, yet his performance felt a bit underwhelming — like deGrom striking out only 11 or 12 over seven or eight innings. But that’s when you know you have arrived as a leader worthy of New York’s universal respect. Put up dominant numbers, and all everyone wants to talk about is RJ Barrett’s second-half surge, or Obi Toppin’s stroke, or Nerlens Noel’s blocks.

That means 31 and 10 is the new expectation, the baseline measurement, and go ahead and score 40 again if you want your name in lights.

After signing with the Knicks two years ago, Randle spoke of bringing back to the franchise that old-school toughness and physicality that shaped the Ewing era. Saturday, after Randle helped beat Toronto with his B-plus game, coach Tom Thibodeau effectively made his star player a prophet by summoning some memories from his time as Jeff Van Gundy’s chief aide.

Julius Randle scored 30 points in the Knicks’ win over the Raptors on Saturday.
Getty Images

“It always starts with your best players,” Thibodeau said. “If they work like that it sets a tone for the team, and so [Randle] is relentless. It’s not an accident that he’s having the type of season that he’s having. His commitment, I could see it from the first day I met him, the type of conditioning he had and how committed he was to turning this thing around.

“I can recall back in the ’90s when I first arrived here as an assistant, the thing that blew me away was Patrick Ewing, every morning in the offseason, he was the first guy in the building and worked like crazy, and the rest of the team did the same. I think that’s leadership. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do.”

And by the way, this latest Knicks triumph was no easy ask. The Raptors won the NBA title two years ago, and went 53-19 last year, without Kawhi Leonard, before losing to the Celtics in Game 7 of the conference semis. They aren’t what they used to be, as Tampa-based nomads searching for postseason life on the outskirts of the play-in tournament, but they still have Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and coach Nick Nurse, more than enough to be a problem for a hot home team feeling comfortable on a sleepy Saturday afternoon.

But the Knicks didn’t drop their guards or lower their standards. In fact, when an Elfrid Payton turnover led to a Toronto break and a forced Randle foul in the third, ultimately allowing the Raptors to take the lead, Randle made a fist and angrily punched the air. He still looked upset on the bench a minute later, as if he felt betrayed by his team’s brief lapse in concentration. Yes, Patrick Ewing would have acted the same way.

“It’s amazing,” Randle said when told Thibodeau had compared Ewing’s leadership to his. “I’ve actually asked him and talked about that before. He kind of gave me insight; he saw it first-hand. So I pride myself on my work ethic. … The guy I’ve idolized the most, the guy I looked up to, was Kobe [Bryant]. His work ethic was top notch. Nobody was better in putting the time in than him.”

In a jam-packed COVID-19 season, when it seems NBA teams are all but playing day-night doubleheaders, Randle has made his three-year, $63 million deal an even bigger bargain than deGrom’s five-year, $137.5 million deal. That doesn’t mean Randle will beat deGrom and the Nets and Gerrit Cole and Zach Wilson to New York’s first championship since the 2011 Giants won theirs.

It just means that Randle can be remembered in this town as a Ewing-like winner. As a king without a crown.

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Ian O'Connor

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