Returning to the place where the seed of his transformational season was planted, Julius Randle’s game sprouted like a tall bamboo.
His seventh season is turning out to be his best one yet, but it also had its shares of lows, including a 25-percent shooting nightmare in a loss to his hometown team Dallas at the beginning of the month.
Randle bent but didn’t break. Just like bamboo.
“He prepared himself for this. You can’t overlook that,” Tom Thibodeau said of Randle’s performance. “I knew when I saw him the first time in the summer—the type of shape that he was in. I’ve had a number of players throughout my career that prepared themselves extremely well in the offseason so they can handle the workload they’re gonna have.”
After a disappointing first season with the Knicks, Randle went home to Dallas last summer, determined to erase that stigma, and paced himself to become a true alpha.
He trained thrice a day. Like he never did before.
The result was a breakthrough All-Star season leading a surging Knicks team that keeps on surprising.
The Friday night shocker was the fifth straight victory for the Knicks that represented their longest winning streak since an eight-game run in 2014. More importantly, the win pushed them three games above .500 (30-27) and just half-game from climbing up to fourth seed in the East currently held by both Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks (30-26).
Randle was determined from the start, hitting his first four shots, including going 3-for-3 from the 3-point line.
He outplayed Luka Doncic, a generational talent and the new face of his hometown team, and Kristaps Porzingis, the former Knicks’ franchise player reduced to just a role-playing skilled big man.
Through three quarters, Randle already had 35, and the Knicks led by four, 83-79.
â€œI was locked in and focused,â€ said Randle, who has scored at least 30 points in his last three games. â€œI always love playing at home in front of my friends, in front of my family. I never take those moments for granted.â€
Randle has now scored at least 20 points in his last six games against his hometown team.
But it wasn’t just an all-Randle show for the Knicks.
RJ Barrett took over at the start of the fourth quarter. After a pair of duds, Barrett returned to form, scoring 13 of his 24 points in that pivotal quarter.
With Randle, Doncic and Porzingis all taking a breather, Barrett took advantage and scored eight straight points as the Knicks built a nine-point lead, 91-82.
Frank Ntilikina, who played spot-up minutes with Alec Burks out due to the health and safety protocols, hit a three-pointer that extended the Knicks lead to a dozen, 94-82.
“We were trying to match up, taking Julius out when they took out Doncic. We felt we needed another scorer out there. That group got on a run, RJ got on a run. We went with it. I thought Frank gave us good minutes. We needed another defender out there, and I thought that was important,” Thibodeau explained.
Derrick Rose also played a significant role leading the Knicks bench with 15 points and five assists.
The Mavericks came charging back and cut the lead into half, 101-95, on a Doncic layup with 4:27 left.
Then Randle finished what he started, scoring his last nine points the rest of the way.
Randle went 16-for-29 from the floor in 41 minutes and added 10 rebounds and seven assists to become the first Knicks player since Bernard King in 1985 to have at least 40 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists in a single game.
Randle also became the first Knicks player since Carmelo Anthony in 2013-14 to have multiple 40-point games in a single season.
Porzingis led the Mavericks with 23 points and 12 rebounds but was only 8-for-20 from the field. Nerlens Noel returned from a one-game absence due to a sore ankle and did a good job defensively against Porzingis.
Noel pulled down 10 rebounds and swatted away three blocks, and scored six points for good measure.
The Knicks defense also reduced Doncic to a playmaker instead of his usual go-to-scorer role. He tied his career-high 19 assists but bled for 22 points on 16 shots.
Randle was the brightest star in Dallas this Friday night.
The Knicks will meet the Pelicans again on Sunday at The Garden.
For sure, Zion Williamson and the Pelicans will try to break Randle.
They could bend him but cannot break him. And every time he bends, it’s just a matter of time before he springs back like bamboo.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo