Knicks postgame notes: Why Julius Randle credits Tom Thibodeau for strong start, how Frank Ntilikina’s ‘playing really well’

Julius Randle drives on Larry Nance Jr.
Julius Randle drives on Larry Nance Jr.

How has Julius Randle been able to reel off so many assists so far this season? He gives the credit to Tom Thibodeau.

“I think Thibs, from the start of training camp, just did a great job of just implementing his system of how we want to play,” Randle said Tuesday after recording a triple-double in the Knicks‘ 95-86 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. “We don’t have to second-guess where we’re going to be on the floor. We have great spacing and if the defense is collapsing, I can depend on whoever it is to cut or to be in the right (place). And just make the easy play. We’re all just trying to make the easy play, the right play, and play for each other unselfishly.”

Randle is the driving force behind New York’s surprising 2-2 start. He had 28 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in the Knicks’ nine-point victory against the Cavs — after putting up similar numbers in Sunday’s 130-110 rout of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Thibodeau said he knew Randle was motivated coming into the season when he arrived to New York in top shape.

“I also think he has a pretty good understanding of his teammates and what their strengths are,” Thibodeau said. “And he’s playing unselfishly and that’s probably the biggest thing. He’s shooting the ball a lot better also. That’s opened up other things for us.”

We detailed some of Randle’s early-season shooting and passing numbers here. Those numbers probably aren’t possible if Randle hadn’t committed to training so vigorously in the offseason.

“I dropped a little bit of weight, but the biggest thing was just pushing myself just to run every day and just challenging myself in that way,” Randle said. “I had great trainers back home. Continuous talk to Thibs, everybody, we were on the same page going into camp. I just wanted to lead by example in that way coming in in great shape.”

Randle said that the Knicks’ new leadership under team president Leon Rose challenged him to enter 2020-21 a better player after his subpar first season in New York.

“Obviously, I’m going to put that pressure on myself as well to challenge myself and get better every year,” Randle said. “Last year was a great learning experience for me. But this year I’m coming back a better player and come back in great shape. And that’s just part of the culture we’re building — guys that are going to come out and fight and compete every day, top to bottom. Not just the coaches — front offices, everybody. We’re competing and not backing down from anybody. That’s just the culture we try to create and compete every night.”

It’s early, but the results have been promising so far for Thibodeau, Randle and the Knicks.

DEFENSE SHOWS UP: New York held Cleveland 36% shooting Tuesday. The Cavs entered the game as one of the best shooting teams in the NBA. Thibodeau, known as a strong defensive tactician, was pleased with the Knicks’ effort on that end of the floor.

“Even when we’re making mistakes, we’re flying around, we’re making the attempt to get out there and challenge shots and it makes a difference,” Thibodeau said. “If you play hard and you swarm and you help each other, good things can come from that. You can cover up from mistakes you might make. Overall, I like the way that we’re working. I can see a lot of the things that they’re working on in practice carrying over to the games.”

STRONG SHOWING FROM FRANK: Frank Ntilikina had five points, two assists and two steals in 14 minutes Tuesday. He went 4 for 4 from behind the arc Sunday against Milwaukee. Thibodeau was asked for his impressions of Ntilikina over the past two games. Here’s what he said:

“He’s playing really well, playing to his strengths. Playing with a lot of energy. His defense is very good. We had a good sequence with Frank and Elfrid (Payton) out there that really helped carry us in the second half. His defense is one of his strengths. When we could put pressure on people it’s very disruptive to the timing of their offense.”

IMPRESSED WITH THIBS: Bullock broke down a strong first impression of Thibodeau thus far.

“A coach that demands for every player to go out there and play the right way,” Bullock said of Thibodeau. “I think he let that be known from Day 1 in camp that we’re not going to force shots. We’re going to share the ball, we’re going to try to play the right way. As long as you’re playing hard on offense, on defense, moving the ball, every player on this team is going to get a chance.

“That’s what he harped about at the beginning of the season and it’s just guys that are trying to buy in and do those things on a nightly basis. If coach sees that, your number will be called. It’s just all about us playing together, not one player is going to be able to do it. It’s about all of us doing it together and going out and competing and playing hard.”