This was a strange Madison Square Garden night in a strange New York Knicks season, starting right there with the pregame introductions. Julius Randle was back home for the first time since giving the fans the thumb, since profanely telling them to shut up, and instead of being warmly embraced or loudly rebuked the star forward was greeted by the sound of apathy.
How, exactly, does apathy sound? It’s one of those things that’s hard to define but easy to hear, a weird mix of barely audible applause and indifferent groans. The announcement of Randle inspired almost no emotion from a relatively small crowd that seemed ready to do — as Tom Thibodeau would say — what the game told it to do. Or, more to the point, what Randle told it to do.
And 19 seconds into this 111-96 victory over San Antonio, Randle told the fans to cheer like mad. He hit a 14-foot stepback jumper, the kind of shot that often signals a grand performance to come, and the Garden roared like it rarely does in the early seconds of a sleepy Monday night.
But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to a 31-point tour de force from the closest thing the Knicks have to a franchise player: Randle didn’t make another basket in 34 minutes. Not a single one. He attempted only a half dozen more shots, and missed them all, finishing with two points, or 29 points fewer than were contributed by RJ Barrett.
Everything has been a struggle for Randle this year, and this night was no different. He threw up a near-airball from the right wing to end the first half, and a significant portion of the crowd booed him as he walked off the floor. Fans booed him again after he committed a turnover in the fourth quarter, and in the final minutes of the blowout, if only for something else to do, some customers in the rafters sent out a boozy-sounding chant of “Randle sucks.”
When it was over, Thibodeau sat in the interview room extolling the virtues of all the Knicks who impacted winning in a profound way. Mitchell Robinson provided energy. Barrett provided downhill explosiveness. Evan Fournier made shots, and Alec Burks made plays, and Quentin Grimes was unselfish, and Julius Randle was … well … efficient in making his reads.
Ol’ Thibs made Randle sound like a quarterback who was a game manager, not a game changer, at least on this night, and he explained that he doesn’t want his power forward to power through double teams and force things. “Hit the open man,” Thibodeau said. “We can play off that.”
Randle finished with three assists and 12 rebounds in those 34 minutes, while Barrett carried the team on the scoreboard. In the coach’s mind, Randle honored his chief responsibility by helping his team win.
“That’s really how I measure his game,” Thibodeau said.
But soon enough, Thibs was making what sounded like a direct plea to his best player, who was not made available to the media after the game. Randle had expressed his regrets to the fans in a Friday post on Instagram, assuring them that he loves and respects them a day after instructing them to “shut the f–k up.” Monday night, when it sure seemed like some relationship repairing still needed to be done, Thibodeau moved to put the issue to bed.
“I don’t want anyone get wrapped up in any personal dilemmas or any of that stuff,” he told reporters at the Garden, while effectively telling Randle himself. “Everything has to be team-first. Just focus in on the team, bring everything you have to the team, bring energy to the team, bring toughness to the team.
“Look, there are going to be ups and downs throughout the course of the year. You’ve got to be mentally tough when you face adversity. Everyone does, right? It’s probably the most important thing in life. Sometimes it goes our way, sometimes it doesn’t. Just navigate through it all.”
Though Randle’s game-night body language has been lacking at times, and not nearly as forceful as it was during his monster 2020-2021, Thibodeau said his star has been fully engaged in practice. “He’s in my office all the time,” Thibs said. “Look, he’s a pro. He’ll navigate through it.”
Randle has no choice but to navigate through it if the Knicks are to return to the playoffs. “For us to be a team that we want,” Fournier said, “of course we need a Julius that’s aggressive and that’s scoring points. His aggressiveness is obviously very good for us, so we have to … make sure he gets the ball in his spots so he can play his game.”
It’s going to be a struggle, because everything is a struggle for these Knicks. Randle is battling his own wayward aim, his confidence, and the fans. The entire season figures to be one of the toughest tests of Julius Randle’s career, and we’re about to find out if he’s tough enough to ace it.