Julius Randle continues strong play, Knicks win 115-102 over Magic

Julius Randle looks like the All-Star player Knicks’ fans loved a couple seasons ago. (John Munson/AP)

Julius Randle was again back on his pandemic groove.

The power forward, whose 2020-21 pandemic season was among the best in recent Knicks history, continued his strong start to this campaign by dropping 25 points with 12 boards in Monday night’s 115-102 victory over the Magic.

“Julius was terrific from start to finish,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I love the way he’s diversifying his game. Running the floor. Sometimes he’s the pace guy, he’ll push it up and then he’ll create movement. Sometimes he just beats people down the floor. Him getting easy baskets is huge for us.”

Randle lost his smile and his jumper last season as fans returned to arenas, prompting outbursts on the court and rumors of a relocation. But he’s clearly in a better space after the long offseason. Randle even sent an Instagram message Monday to Madison Square Garden, “I’ve missed you.”

That sentiment would’ve been hard to believe about five months ago.

Now it’s convincing.

“I feel more free and fun to play if I’m not just hanging in the backcourt looking for the ball, but running and making motion,” Randle said.

On Monday, the 1-time All-Star was finishing in transition while RJ Barrett shot poorly and Jalen Brunson navigated foul trouble.

The Knicks (2-1), who finished with 24 assists, won their second straight against a bottom dweller of the Eastern Conference. They beat the Pistons on Friday and finish a three-game homestand with another winnable game Wednesday against the Hornets.

Tom Thibodeau determined to get his team to shoot more threes: ‘We nudged it up a little bit’ ]

The rebuilding Magic (0-4) will be firmly in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes this season. Their top player is this year’s No. 1 pick, Paolo Banchero, a very early Rookie of the Year frontrunner who scored 21 points in 34 minutes Monday.

But they couldn’t hang Monday with the Knicks, who led for the final three quarters.

Brunson was the stabilizer while scoring 21 points with six assists in 33 minutes. When the Knicks looked vulnerable because their lead fell to 6 with four minutes left, Brunson responded with an and-1 jumper. It was all the separation the Knicks required.

“You can’t say enough about what Jalen does for the team. He’s just in complete control at all times,” Thibodeau said. “You hit some tough spots in the game and he has just such a strong demeanor and strong face and it’s one of determination. It gives your team belief that we can do this. We can play well and we can get out of this.”

The second unit ran rampant with Obi Toppin providing his usual array of highlights. This time, Toppin’s greatest play was a pass: a no-look behind-the-back dish to Barrett for a breakaway dunk.

“R.J. was screaming my name when we were at halfcourt already, so I knew I was passing to him no matter what,” Toppin said.