It was early in the first quarter, mere minutes had passed. But it felt longer because of how much the game has slowed down for Julius Randle.
Initially, the Phoenix Suns (20-18) threw a double at Randle, who had the ball at the right side of the perimeter. That made sense—you should double the 20th-best scorer in the NBA. But Chris Paul hedged back to Immanuel Quickley, also stationed on the perimeter and open for three, which left All-NBA Defensive First Team Miles Bridges on an island by himself. Randle stutter-stepped once, accompanied by a contemplative head fake. Bridges kept stationary, feet planted, hands raised. No matter, Randle rose in stride, drilling a three right in the eye of Bridges.
That sequence pretty much sums up the game for Julius and the New York Knicks (20-18), a 102-83 rout of the Suns. Their largest lead of the afternoon was 32 points and there were times when it seemed even more than that.
Welcome to the Randle revolution. It will be televised for all the haters, including myself, can make amends with the man who told us all to go “fuck ourselves” last season. Randle didn’t need to apologize with words but with action. and this season, he’s been doing it, with hard-fought effort on the defensive end and a functional offense pattern that has included finding his teammates and shredding opposing defenses. As Mike Breen said during the telecast, Randle is second in first-quarter points, only behind Luka Dončić, who leads the league in scoring. He finished the quarter with 11.
Devin Booker was out today with an injury again, and boy, did the Suns miss his 27 points per game. The first quarter ended with a season-low in points allowed, just 11 by the Suns. And that was with Evan Fournier making a two-minute guest appearance off the bench.
The Suns shot 22.7% in the first quarter. Even worse, they shot 1-10 from three, and downtown shooting had murdered the Knicks over the recent five-game losing streak. Jalen Brunson’s return to the starting lineup, especially playing alongside Quickley and Quentin Grimes, gave Knicks fans a dream trio on the perimeter. It also allowed Quickley to play off-guard, with the Knicks only committing one turnover in the quarter.
Brunson’s steady hand has been missed. It all started with the game against the Dallas Mavericks, where Tom Thibodeau played Quickley a ridiculous 51 minutes through overtime, exhausting the young player and leaving him without the legs to his jumper and floater. The three-game stretch without Brunson saw Quickley average 10 assists a game, never falling below the seven-assist mark, showing an improvement on that end of his development. But while Quickley is improving, he is no Brunson, who provides an All-Star level consistency at the most critical position.
Just how crucial was Jalen? In the first half, he had 16 points (5-9), four assists, and three rebounds. He also hit 2-of-2 from downtown, which turns the Knicks’ offense up another gear.
When the Knicks have reliable three-point shooting at the point, it opens up the rest of the offense because the defense has to stay on their man, which wasn’t the case during the Elfrid Payton years. That spacing helped the Knicks shoot 47% collectively from the field, with the starters shooting a combined 16 of 34. It helps even more to have Quickley and Grimes alongside Brunson in the starting unit, adding even more potential shooting to start the game. When RJ Barrett returns from injury, I would like to see Thibs FINALLY play small, with Randle at the five and Barrett at the four, unleashing a true five-out lineup capable of switching.
Meanwhile, off the bench, Deuce McBride could concentrate his boundless energy on defense, locking up Chris Paul to 0 points (0-4) and one assist in the first half, and only 11 points overall. With Brunson out, McBride’s increased minutes diluted his production, causing him to exert more attention as a facilitator, which is not his strength. The three-guard lineup of Brunson, McBride, and Quickley is one of the best guard rotations in the league and gives you a bit of everything. That trip was primarily behind the 18-0 run the Knicks put on the Suns in the second quarter. The 31 points the Knicks held the Suns to was a season-best for the team as well.
Also, Mitch was back to his old tricks against these sloppy Suns. The Knicks won the battle for points in the paint 36-28.
I’ve been at the front lines of the “trade Randle” campaign. And there are still arguments for selling high on him, perhaps for unprotected draft picks for next year’s draft. But he has shown his worth, and I no longer feel compelled to get him off the roster for the sake of doing so. He is the only player capable of initiating his own offense and taking advantage of clear mismatches with his offensive skill set. He did it all game, posting up, pulling up on jumpers, drilling threes, and finding teammates. He tried his best to get Fournier going, who he shared a solid two-man game with last season, but to no avail. Facilitator Randle might be back, but he’s no miracle maker.
BTW, hats off to Quentin Grimes for this corner three:
Every season Chris Paul looks more and more washed. In the 2021 Finals matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Paul began to fade. Every season since, he has phased out earlier and earlier. This season he has looked on the verge of retirement early in the regular season. Of course, having McBride on your ass doesn’t help. He didn’t get his first field goal until three minutes into the third quarter. Right before Randle pulled up for another three-pointer in Torrey Craig’s face. Get this man back on the All-NBA team, pronto.
At the end of the third quarter, the offense sagged a little. But the return of Brunson saved the team from the type of collapse that haunted the team in late December. The Knicks struggled in his absence in ball movement outside of Randle, and Quickley’s isolation plays. Especially in the front-court combination of Jericho Sims and Isaiah Hartenstein, the team really struggled to initiate crisp passing and penetration with a clogged interior.
If there’s anything to critique, it’s Brunson’s concerning free throw shooting, which has haunted him since the Christmas Day game against Philly, where he missed two clutch ones at the end of the game. Today he was 6/11 from the line. As my pops texted me, “free throws are a repetitive action like a golf swing. Players need to practice more. When it’s under pressure, it’s all in the mind.” Well said, pops.
In the third quarter, to bump the score back up to 29, Randle caught an errant pass from Brunson, who leaped into the air before he knew what to do. The pass landed at Randle’s feet, with Bridges closing out tight. In the same fluid motion as the first quarter, Randle collected the ball, eyed the basket, rose, and drilled the three. A few seconds later, the Garden chanted, “MVP!” Then to cap the third, he read the defense perfectly on a drive for a no-look pass to a cutting Grimes, who converted. It continued all the way to the fourth, with perhaps the play that fans have wanted to see the most. With about a minute left and up by 22, Randle hustled to catch up to a long Suns outlet pass with a steal to avoid an easy bucket. Welcome back, All-NBA Randle, we’ve missed you. Knicks by 19.
Jaybugkit says, “Great hustle Randle fantastic,” and there’s no argument here. Next game is a rematch with the Spurs on Wednesday. Peace ‘til then.