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ATLANTA — All season long, Tom Thibodeau has gotten the best out of Julius Randle.
Thibodeau has done wonders with the lowest-payroll team in the Eastern Conference on the way to a shocking 41-31 regular season.
Game 4 of their first-round playoff series against the Hawks is on tap Sunday amid the sea of red at State Farm Arena, and Thibodeau is running out of time with the Knicks behind 2-1. But he’s not doubting the discombobulated Randle can still take over the series.
“We know what a great passer he is,’’ Thibodeau said following Saturday’s practice. “Just be Julius. I don’t want him overthinking it. Let the game come to you. Sometimes you’re going to get your shots sometimes you got to make the play. That’s what he’s done extremely well all year long. He’s our engine, he’s a fighter, he’s tough, he’s smart. He’ll figure it out.’’
If he doesn’t, it’s all but over. The first three games have been a cold dose of reality, with Trae Young and his fellow Hawks snipers too much for the Knicks of Randle and RJ Barrett.
The Knicks’ head of the snake — as the Hawks players called Randle before the series — has lost his poisonous venom in the playoffs.
Atlanta coach Nate McMillan’s complex schemes have been Randle’s Kryptonite. The Hawks are making him face different looks, different defenders.
“It’s been a team effort,’’ said Atlanta’s Kevin Huerter, who is from the Albany area. “He’s the head of the snake. When the team is playing at its best, he’s playing at its best. He’s making shots and creating for everyone else. We wanted to make it as tough as we could on him. We’ve thrown different guys at him. Defensively, it’s feel like every possession someone else gets a crack at him.
“We’re just trying to show help when we can and force him into tough shots.’’
Randle has put up 15, 15 and 14 points, respectively, in the first three games. That must change in Game 4 or the Knicks will be staring down the barrel of a 3-1 hole and the offseason.
“They really struggle to score right now,’’ one NBA scout said of the Knicks.
Another longtime NBA talent evaluator said it might be hard for Thibodeau to unlock Randle the way he did in the regular season.
McMillan’s double- and triple-teams are vexing and are making Randle’s role as point-forward a failure.
“It’s hard to create more for Julius Randle because he has the ball so much,’’ the talent evaluator said. “ You can give the ball more to [Derrick] Rose, but then you’re limiting Rose as a scorer. What this is showing is their need for a pass-first point guard that can make Randle a finisher and not a creator.
“And they still don’t have that third guy a team has to pay attention to wherever they are on the court. But they still got to have a way to free up Randle for an easier shot.’’
Thibodeau must find a way, because right now he’s getting outcoached. And Randle must drain his open 3-pointers, they way he did 41 percent of the time in the regular season.
“We’re just guarding him and really trying to deny his touches,’’ McMillan said. “Any player who has had the season he’d had and certainly what he did against us in the regular season you try to limit his touches. After that, try to make him difficult to score and keep a body on him and try to keep a body in front of him and make him score over the top.’’
Barrett has yet to impose his will on the series, either. In the first three playoff games of his career, Barrett is averaging 11.3 points on 34.2 percent shooting — 25 percent (4-for-16) from 3-point range. Randle, in his first three playoffs games, is shooting just 24.1 percent and has 10 turnovers.
Randle averaged 24.1 points in the regular season — and 37.3 points in three games against Atlanta. If regular-season Randle doesn’t show up Sunday, the Knicks will go into the summer perhaps questioning what their foundation is.
The glimmer of hope is the play of Rose, 32, but he’s also a concern because of the massive minutes he has logged at his age — 38, 39 and 39 in the first three games —and his injury history.
One NBA source said the fact the series is down to just one off-day between games benefits the younger Hawks. The Knicks took Game 2 after a two-day break.
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