RJ Barrett, Julius Randle propel Knicks past rival Hawks

ATLANTA — If Julius Randle and RJ Barrett had played this sharply against the Hawks last spring, the Knicks would have won that first-round playoff series.

The Hawks fans were chanting “playoff chokers’’ in the first half Saturday night at State Farm Arena, but Randle and Barrett shut them up with a combined 50 points in a 117-108 victory that put the Knicks over the .500 mark for the first time in more than a month.

After laying in a big inside hoop with 2:51 remaining in the fourth quarter despite getting mauled by John Collins, a smiling Randle celebrated by giving a thumbs-down — this time, presumably, to Hawks fans, who were heckling him on the baseline after the sequence.

Randle finished with 24 points and nine assists and kept his composure late, despite twice getting blocked at the rim in the fourth quarter by Atlanta’s young big man, Onyeka Okongwu.

Barrett, coming off two straight 30-point games, pumped in 26 points and Evan Fournier added 18. For the second straight game, all five starters cruised into double figures: Alec Burks had 17 points and eight assists and Mitchell Robinson had 14 points and 13 rebounds.

RJ Barrett, who scored 26 points, shoots over Danilo Gallinari during the Knicks’ 117-108 win over the Hawks.
Getty Images

“It’s great to see him have a monster game like that,’’ Barrett said of Randle. “When we both play well, we have a great chance to win.’’

Randle’s performance and his joking use of the thumbs-down were steps in the direction of winning back his fans after his thumbs-down display toward Knicks fans nine days ago at the Garden.

Randle, however, was not made available to the media after the game for the fifth time in the last six contests.

“I thought the two-man game with he and Alec was really good,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I thought Julius made great reads all game long, and then that got us going. You can’t say enough about the way RJ is playing, also.’’

Julius Randle, who scored 24 points, drives to the basket during the Knicks' win.
Julius Randle, who scored 24 points, drives to the basket during the Knicks’ win.
NBAE via Getty Images

The Knicks are 8-3 in their last 11 games, back over .500 at 22-21 and would be situated in the play-in event if the season ended today. It’s the first time they’ve been over .500 since Dec. 2.

“It feels good,’’ Barrett said. “That’s what we were working for. We had a tough month, we’ve started to pick it up now and it’s exciting to be part of it.’’

The Hawks made a spirited rally from a 17-point deficit early in the third quarter and were down just three points with four minutes left in the fourth.

With Atlanta fans chanting “De-Fense,’’ Barrett cooly sank a right-wing 3-pointer that set the Knicks on a 10-0 run, with Randle putting the finishing touches on the win.

“It’s a great team win,’’ Barrett said. “They really fought back. A number of us made big plays down the stretch to hold them off.’’

The Knicks used the same starting alignment that routed the Hawks here in late November, which prompted Thibodeau to officially demote point guard Kemba Walker from the rotation.

Walker, who is out with a knee injury, has a good chance of becoming available for Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee against the Hornets. It stands to reason the Knicks coach could consider using him off the bench.

Before the game Saturday, Thibodeau issued a warning that all playing time must be earned, partly via good practices.

“You make your decisions based on the people you have available, but we’ll see when we get guys back,’’ Thibodeau said after the game. “We’re always gonna do what’s best for the team, period.’’

In the first half, Randle scored 15 points and had six assists as the Knicks built a 14-point bulge at the break.

Randle deferred in the first quarter with crisp passes, including a series to big men Robinson and Taj Gibson. Then, he became a scoring machine late in the second quarter in notching nine straight points.

“I think him reading the game — the game tells you what to do, but I think the unselfishness is critical,’’ Thibodeau said. “Just hit the open man. Trust the pass.’’

The Hawks have struggled on defense all season, the cause of their 17-25 record and fifth straight loss. They may qualify as the NBA’s most disappointing team after their miraculous run to the Eastern Conference finals last season.

The Knicks may or may not win the trade for Cam Reddish they made Thursday with the Hawks, especially if the first-round pick they received is conveyed this June, but they sure look to be headed in a better direction.

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