Knicks fans’ boos, criticisms light up fire under Julius Randle’s belly

NBA stars love to play in Madison Square Garden because the New York Knicks fans bring out the best in them. They relish silencing the crowd.

Ask Trae Young.

Knicks’ All-Star Julius Randle had his love-hate relationship with the New York fans since his arrival as the consolation of the Kevin Durant sweepstakes in the summer of 2019.

Just as when he thought he’s become the city’s new conquering hero after an All-NBA year and carrying them back to the playoffs in a strange season, Randle is back to ground zero.

A sloppy start to this season has earned him the ire of the seemingly impatient fanbase. There was some celebration from some quarters when he tested positive COVID-19, much to his consternation.

Since his return from the health and safety protocols, Randle’s interviews were reduced to expletive-filled clipped comments.

It became his crusade to ‘shut the f–ck up’ his critics.

It spilled over to Thursday night’s game against the Boston Celtics. He heard boos from the crowd when they trailed by as many as 25 points.

The heated exchange with the crowd could be worrying to some but not to Evan Fournier, who had his fair share of harsh criticisms from the fans.

“He puts emotion into everything he does,” said Fournier reflecting on the short time he’s got to know Randle. “He probably wasn’t happy about [the booing]. Honestly, no big deal. If I were him, playing hard as hell and [playing] well … when you give everything you have into something and you give so much into something and it doesn’t work out or you’re being called out, it’s frustrating.

“But it’s the business we’re in. And Julius is the image of the franchise. He’s the star player, so of course, he’s going to get more criticism. And I think he understands that.”

Lately, Randle’s candor and demeanor may look petty, but he’s feeding off the hate and doubts and channels that frustration into motivation. Like his mentor, the late Kobe Bryant, Randle seems to play better when he’s mad.

Randle has been playing on fumes in the Knicks’ twin wins over Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics, averaging 26.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 3.0 assists against only 1.5 turnovers. While his three-point shooting (26.7 percent) is still a work in progress, his change in approach — attacking the rim more and setting hard screens — had made him more efficient on offense. And on defense, too. The poor body language and lifeless jogs on the floor have turned into diving for loose balls and crashing the paint with more fervor.

While Evan Fournier (career-high 41 points and franchise record-tying 10 triples) and RJ Barrett (buzzer-beating game-winner) emerged as the heroes of Thursday night’s epic 108-105 win over the Celtics, Randle served as the catalyst of the Knicks’ third-quarter surge, which set up the dramatic finish. He unloaded 10 of his 22 points in that pivotal quarter that turned the chorus of boos into cheers leading to the chaos that rattled the Celtics in crunch time.

Randle’s thumbs-down gesture was unwarranted. But he’s relishing his new villain role to motivate himself whether he admits it or not.

Some may say he waged a war that he couldn’t win. But it’s not just a war with the fans. It’s a war against the doubts that robbed him of his All-Star form.

Some fans made it personal. Randle took it personally. And so far, he’s walking the talk. Because he knows there’s only one way to win this war.

By embracing the villain role on the hallowed grounds of Madison Square Garden that made visiting players play their best, Randle essentially accepted the challenge.

Win or shut the f–ck up!

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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