CLEVELAND -- As the New York Knicks crept closer to Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers, they did so believing that Julius Randle would find a way to play.
After spraining his left ankle March 29 against the Miami Heat, there was some question as to whether the All Star forward would be ready for the start of the series. But anyone who watched him in recent days and knew the type of determination he displayed night in and night out throughout the season never doubted what would happen Saturday night.
The fact that Randle scored 19 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out four assists in almost 34 minutes and helped carry the tough-minded group to a 101-97 Game 1 win was less of a surprise and more of a premonition for those that knew him best.
"The people that are around him, we all know, you're going to get everything he has," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. "Julius played in 77 games until he sprained his ankle. ... you're going to get everything he has. I knew if he could go, he would go. That's Julius."
Randle acknowledged after the game that he was confident he'd find a way to play as he continued rehabbing his ankle. He provided exactly the kind of lift Thibodeau was hoping to see, an engine behind the Knicks' impressive 51-38 rebounding advantage over a Cavs team that didn't have enough answers down the stretch.
"Every day I got like significantly better," Randle said. "So I felt by the time Saturday got here I would be fine."
While Randle provided a scoring boost throughout the night, the biggest play he made came with the Knicks clinging to a 99-97 lead with less than 10 seconds left in regulation. Knicks guard Jalen Brunson missed a 22-foot jumper with 9.1 seconds left, but Randle gobbled up the rebound and then Knicks guard Quentin Grimes was fouled a few seconds later and iced the game with two clutch free throws.
Randle's coaches and teammates all noted how much of a emotional lift it was to have their big man back on the floor.
"He's a presence," Brunson said. "It may not be shooting. ... Obviously, he can do all that, but the offensive rebound was huge, the little things that he has committed himself to do has been fantastic. It helps us -- some of the things that he does, it may not go in the stat sheet, but it's big time."
Aside from Randle's return, the Knicks got some contributions from up and down their roster in Saturday's win. Brunson shook off some early foul trouble and finished with 27 points, hitting some big shots down the stretch.
Josh Hart, who also turned his ankle late in regulation, provided a huge lift off Thibodeau's bench with 17 points and 10 rebounds, including a crucial three-pointer with 1:49 left in regulation that gave the Knicks the lead back. Hart's performance was even more impressive given that he was playing in the first playoff game of his career.
New York's bench outscored Cleveland's bench 37-14, a major reason why Randle was quick to point out the entire group's effort, while admitting he was a little winded after missing almost three weeks.
"I was tired as hell, for sure," Randle said. "But that's why we have such a great team. Able to lean on the guys, JB, Josh [Hart], everybody, able to be able to pick each other up, so I just go out there, do my best, and let the cards fall where they may. Just trust the guys and that was a great team win."
It was the type of win that has defined Thibodeau's coaching career -- a victory made even more impressive knowing that the Knicks got it with Randle still not playing, or feeling, like his old self.
"Dependability is a big part of the league," Thibodeau said. "And to be able to count on each other is important so we don't want anyone out there who's injured. We don't want to put anyone in harm's way, but if you can give us something, give us what you have and that's what I'm proud of Julius for. He gave us what he had."