Julius Randle and RJ Barrett wouldn’t let Knicks lose this one



With all due respect to Knicks fans, Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City is the NBA’s most raucous building.

On another pandemic Saturday, the downtown arena was empty. The Thunder are the lone NBA franchise that has decided not to allow fans the whole season.

Even if there had been the usual loud pre-pandemic crowd, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett would have made sure to shut them up Saturday.

Yes, this was against the no-name Thunder without their best player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but Randle and Barrett were two tornadoes rolling through the Great Plains.

And in routing the Thunder, 119-97, Randle’s Knicks swept away the negative chatter that the season’s second half might not be as noisy as the first.

The Knicks didn’t have their top two point guards, Elfrid Payton and Derrick Rose, but this was nevertheless a thing of beauty. Randle and Barrett made sure of it, and rookie point guard Immanuel Quickley earned more trust from coach Tom Thibodeau in getting the start in the second half and guiding a romp over the final two periods.

Ironman Randle went from his seven-point, five-turnover sleeper Thursday in Milwaukee to a historic triple-double. Barrett made history with his career high and first 30-point game — his 31st and 32nd points on a set-up from Randle.

RJ Barrett and Julius Randle
RJ Barrett and Julius Randle
AP (2)

“He’s big-time, he was encouraging me to get the 30-ball,’’ Barrett said. “Great leader, great guy.’’

Randle notched his own milestone in this fantasy second season as a Knick — becoming the first player in 32 years to post two triple-doubles in a season for the franchise.

The last one was Jeff Van Gundy’s broadcast partner, Mark Jackson — a dear friend of Thibodeau’s — in 1988-89. Yes, Carmelo Anthony couldn’t get two in seven seasons.

“Mark Jackson did that?’’ asked Thibodeau, who left his bad mood in Milwaukee. “Mark was a great talent, a great Knick, great guy, too. I think it is a little bit surprising. But Julius had a monster game. To score the way he did, the assists, the all-around play, I think that’s what leaders do.’’

Late Thursday night after the Knicks had been routed by the Bucks, Randle confided that he historically has put up clunker outings in the first game after the All-Star break. A couple of days to dwell on it served him well.

“I had to bounce back, man,’’ Randle said. “I told you I’m usually not great the first game after the All-Star break. I know that about myself. I tried to lock in but history repeated itself. I got right back to it and we got the win and go back home.’’

This was one the Knicks, who improved to 20-19, had to have, with games looming against the Brooklyn Dream Team on Atlantic Avenue on Monday and the Eastern-leading 76ers on Tuesday in Philadelphia (even if injured Sixers star Joel Embiid will miss that one).

This was the one Randle needed to make sure his second half is as perfect as his first half.

“Julius is a very prideful player,’’ Thibodeau said. “There’s no player in this league who will play great for all 82 games. I love the resolve he has to come back and be ready to go and set the tone for us. It speaks volumes to his leadership.’’

Randle had recorded seven points — equaling his total in Milwaukee — just 3:12 into Saturday’s game. He had 14 points by halftime — doubling the seven. When it was over, his line read 26 points, 12 assists, 12 rebounds.

And he got to share this day with Barrett — their chemistry growing by the game.

In the first quarter, Barrett muscled into the lane, drew the double and whipped it to Randle in the left corner for an open 3-pointer.

“They don’t all of a sudden start being great,’’ Thibodeau said of Barrett’s rise. “I have had several players over the years where each year they got better. RJ will be one of those guys. And I love what Julius is doing. Seven years in, he’s still getting better.’’

Randle is an All-Star. Barrrett, now with 20-point games in five of the past six contests, is looking like the Knicks’ next one. Thibodeau already has the second star to Randle.

If this pandemic season is going to be playoff special, the Knicks may need one more veteran piece.

Interestingly, before the game, Thibodeau dropped the name of Al Horford, the 34-year-old Thunder big man who is probably itching to be traded to a contender by the March 25 deadline.

“Any team that has Al Horford on it is capable,’’ Thibodeau said, unsolicited.

The Knicks can use big-man depth because of center Mitchell Robinson’s fractured hand and relative inexperience. Horford was terrific in the loss, grabbing rebounds, sinking 3s and hitting hook shots (16 points, 7-for-9).

“We got back to what we are as a team and our identity,’’ Randle said. “It was encouraging.’’

Here they come, Brooklyn.


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