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Knicks 94, Magic 93: ‘I can’t believe there was a time where I wasn’t 100% on board with Julius Randle’

Another game, another triple-double for Julius.

NBA: Orlando Magic at New York Knicks Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

In a win indicative of pretty much their entire season, the Knicks improved to 21-21 with a gritty 94-93 win over the Orlando Magic thanks to the heroics of Julius Randle.

A season ago, Julius Randle finishing with more shot attempts than points would have spelt a typical disastrous performance from him and the team. Thursday, however, it was just a footnote in a historic game by Randle in which he finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds, and a career-high 17 assists. As P&T’er Walt Clyde Phraser noted, it boggles the mind the degree to which Randle, a veritable pariah last season, has won the hearts of Knicks fans.

It is the most assists in a game ever recorded by a starting Knicks forward, and gave him the most triple doubles for a Knick since 1982. Nikola Jokic is the only other player to score at least 15 points, grab at least 10 rebounds, and dish out at least 17 assists in a game this season.

Randle got off to a slow start scoring the ball, but picked up a quick seven assists in the first quarter alone off three dimes apiece to Alec Burks, who finished with 21 points, and to RJ Barrett, who finished with 17.

Barrett did most of his work offensively in the first half, in which he had 12 points on 5-7 shooting, before cooling off in the second with just 5 points on 2-8 shooting. He demonstrated what has become a more frequent poise with the basketball, playing off the intense defensive attention given to the much-improved passer in Julius Randle while cleverly avoiding proficient shot blockers like Mo Bamba.

Led by Randle, this year’s team continues to show its improved resilience.

Coming off two straight heartbreaking losses, the Knicks let a 72-56 lead in the third quarter turn into a 75-74 deficit early in the fourth quarter off a 19-2 run from a Magic team hungry to snap an eight-game losing streak.

The run was sparked in part by the continued ineptitude of Obi Toppin’s, who did not accumulate any stats other than three missed field goal attempts and a minus-eight in eight minutes.

It marks three scoreless games for Toppin, who was touted as an offensively-ready prospect by many, including head coach Tom Thibodeau. His unreliability has led to Thibodeau playing him just two or less second-half minutes in those games while resting Julius Randle for a total of just 7.5 second-half minutes.

In previous years, a disheartening sequence like that would likely turn into a double-digit loss, as it did in their last game against the Magic in which they lost by 19. Instead, Randle came back in to turn the tide, and this time the Knicks’ supporting cast stepped up.

Alec Burks, Reggie Bullock (who finished with 20 points and six made threes), and most notably, Frank Ntilikina delivered clutch fourth quarter baskets.

With Elfrid Payton, Immanuel Quickley, and Derrick Rose inactive and with Ntilikina having scored zero points in his last four contests on 0-13 shooting, a scoring outburst was desperately needed from the 2017 lottery pick, and he delivered with 13 points on 4-9 shooting with three three-pointers.

Despite stellar defense like halting an Aaron Gordon isolation in its tracks, things looked meek for him offensively in the first half. He had just one point off a free throw after brutally missing his first attempt at the line, but apparently seeing the ball go through the net once was enough for him to regain his confidence. At the Knicks at the start of the third quarter, Ntilikina looked like he had before his cold stretch with two made threes, sandwiched between threes made by Bullock and Barrett to give the Knicks an 11-point lead.

Perhaps even more exciting than his continued proficiency from deep was when he uncharacteristically drove strongly the hoop for an and-1 almost-dunk over Nikola Vucevic to extend the Knicks’ lead to 15.

It is aggressive drives like that which will be almost as paramount as his three point shooting to him maintaining a spot in the rotation.

With a little under four minutes left in the fourth quarter, Ntilikina looked like a veteran three-point marksman as he calmly drained an open corner three off an assist from Barrett to give the Knicks an 88-87 lead.

Ntilikina was subbed out a few seconds later and it was Randle’s turn to deliver with ever-reliable heroics. The All-Star drained back-to-back contested fadeaways for his only four points of the fourth over sturdy defender Khem Birch to give the Knicks a five-point lead with 2:39 left in the game.

The Magic cut it back down to a two-point game off quick scores, but Alec Burks filled his role as the sparkplug with an and-1 basket over Evan Fournier, which had even perpetually-stoic Tom Thibodeau pumping his fist.

Burks came off short on the free throw attempt, and Fournier had revenge on Burks with a three pointer to make it a one-point game. Evan Fournier, an upcoming unrestricted free agent and potential Knicks target, finished with 23 points and four three pointers, but on a hefty 21 field goal attempts.

On the Knicks’ next possession, the Magic regained possession off a jump ball on Reggie Bullock.

With 13 seconds left, the Magic had a chance to take the lead, but the Knicks again separated themselves from teams of old as Bullock redeemed himself by stealing it from Fournier, effectively ending the game.

The Magic, now with nine straight losses, did not make much of an effort to extend the game by fouling after Bullock’s steal, the antithesis of the effort the Knicks gave down the stretch and have given all season.

While beating a 13-26 team on an eight-game losing streak is not a crowning achievement, it was still encouraging to see the Knicks bounce back from consecutive losses without their starting center and three rotational point guards.