The New York Knicks offense sputtered in Jalen Brunson’s absence.
Their remaining star Julius Randle struggled offensively, and his frustrations boiled over in a momentum-shifting technical foul that allowed the Los Angeles Clippers to run away with a 106-95 win on Saturday.
The Knicks’ third straight loss dropped them to sixth place in the Eastern Conference behind their crosstown rivals Brooklyn Nets (38-29).
Without Brunson’s calming leadership, Randle relapsed again, with his emotions getting the best of him as he did last season.
The Knicks appeared headed into the fourth quarter on top when Randle blew his top.
He intentionally elbowed Clippers backup big Mason Plumlee in a rebound battle to air his frustrations for not getting the calls in his previous drives. Instead of having a one-point lead, the Knicks trailed by two as the Clippers hit three free throws, two off a loose ball foul and one from a technical foul, with 0.3 seconds left in the third quarter.
Randle had to be restrained, and it took Knicks associate head coach Johnnie Bryant to cool down the emotional All-Star forward, who appeared to have a shouting match with a team staff on the bench while the play was on review.
“Sometimes [Randle] can get frustrated, but it’s an emotional game,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau said. “So just keep playing.”
But the Knicks stopped playing beautiful music together after Randle’s meltdown.
The Clippers opened the fourth quarter with an 8-0 run and were never seriously threatened.
Randle had 19 points but missed 19 of 24 shots and committed five fouls. RJ Barrett was only good for 11 points on 12 shots and was a team-worst minus-21.
On the flip side, the Clippers stars showed up and raised their game when it mattered.
Kawhi Leonard hit 28 of his 38 points in the second half, while Paul George scattered 22 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists for the Clippers’ third straight victory.
Immanuel Quickley rebounded from his two straight sub-par games with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. But his effort was not enough to lift the Knicks, who didn’t reach 100 points for the first time since their momentum-shifting 92-81 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers last Dec. 4 that changed the course of their season.
Against the Clippers’ playoff-type defense, the Knicks could only hit 35.4 percent of their shots and made only seven of 31 three-point attempts. Despite their awful shooting, they kept the game close until Randle’s meltdown by dominating the boards (54-39), running in transition (19-9 fastbreak points), and getting to the free throw line (24 of 27).
The veteran officiating crew led by Bill Kennedy called only 37 fouls during the physical encounter, with the Knicks accounting for only 17. The Clippers only went to the line 16 times and made 12 free throws.
In the end, Leonard’s shotmaking made the biggest difference.
The two-time NBA Finals MVP went 14 for 22 from the floor, including 3 of 6 from downtown. He also hit perfect 7 of 7 free throws.
Brunson missed his seventh game of the season with a bruised left foot. The Knicks sorely missed him. He is listed day-to-day, but it will be too much to ask him to return as soon as Sunday against the surging Los Angeles Lakers, winners of their last three games, despite LeBron James still on a walking boot with a tendon injury.
Another loss will put the Knicks closer to the play-in tournament than a dream homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
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