It was the same old story for the Knicks Thursday night:
The starters were absolutely brutal, and it took the bench to make it look like a game.
Julius Randle, Kemba Walker and company ran up a deficit that got to 24 points early in the fourth quarter. A lineup of Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes plus starter Mitchell Robinson turned in a spirited performance to cut the lead to 10 twice, but it was too little too late in a 102-91 loss to the Pelicans.
The defeat, the third straight at the Garden, dropped the Knicks to 22-24 and 11th in the East, a game outside of the final play-in tournament spot.
It all came undone in a 35-15 third quarter that turned the game into a laugher, as Brandon Ingram and Devonte’ Graham had their way with a suddenly pliant New York defense. “The first five minutes of the third, we were in mud,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said after the loss. “We can’t allow our offense to dictate our defense. We played hard, but we didn’t play with the toughness that we needed to, in terms of being able to fight through things.”
Slow starts have been an issue in the losing streak, something RJ Barrett pinpointed on visiting teams being pumped up. “Teams get up to play in the Garden,” he said. “People have a lot of pride…they want to succeed here on the biggest stage. We just gotta know that and come out and hit people first.”
Barrett dodged a question about the high volume of boos Thursday night, joking that a reporter “ain’t get s–t from me” after his studied non-answer. The fans did rain down boos, mostly trained on Randle and the officials.
Pelicans guard Josh Hart joked that the road team was playing with an extra player because of the agitated home fans. “They weren’t on our side, but they weren’t on their side either,” Hart said after the game.
It’s clear that Randle’s confidence is somewhere south of the toilet, maybe in the sewers of Midtown.
Randle tried to get going early, missing three aggressive shots in the opening minutes. He immediately downshifted to passing, screening and defense from there. He finished with four points, one made field goal, three turnovers and one play that Clyde Frazier memorably said was “reminiscent of the old butt trick from the Jets.”
Frazier was referring to Mark Sanchez’s infamous play. Randle smacking into Evan Fournier while trying to screen for him had the same result as the butt fumble: The other team scooped up a loose ball for an easy score.
Taj Gibson and Thibodeau were left to defend Randle after the game, as the Knicks declined to let Randle speak to reporters, something he’s barely done in the weeks since he gave fans a “shut the f— up” thumbs down.
“When things aren’t going our way, Julius gets a lot of the blame…That goes with the turf,” Thibodeau said, pinning the issue on “really our entire team.”
“I’m not really worried about Julius,” Gibson said. “He’s a professional, he’s a great guy.”
It seemed like Randle had hit rock bottom last Monday, when he was booed off the court after a two-point dud against the Spurs. Since then, he had averaged 20 points in a four-game stretch against the Hawks, Mavericks, Hornets and Timberwolves.[More Knicks] Cam Reddish’s Knicks debut could be right around the corner »
Instead, his demons returned Thursday night. He was booed after several particularly bad turnovers, although the fans’ performance was equally unimpressive, chanting “OBI TOPPIN” for Randle’s backup while RJ Barrett was at the line shooting free throws in what was then a 24-point blowout. (Their loudest cheers, easily, came when a trio exchanged smooches in a three-way trade on the kiss cam.)
Randle stunk, but he was far from alone. The offense came out bricking and hovered between stale and incompetent the rest of the night, with only RJ Barrett remotely capable of generating his own among the starters. The team ended the night 9-for-38 from three-point range, and it was worse than it looked, with Quickley, Grimes and Burks pouring in seven of those, mostly late.
Walker and Evan Fournier weren’t much better than Randle, combining for 11 points on 3-of-13 shooting.
Barrett’s diagnosis: “We need to get into the paint more. Defenses are starting to play us a little differently on the ball screens, starting to blitz us a lot. I think we gotta just figure that out so we can get downhill and make plays.”
Mitchell Robinson did add 17 points on the usual array of layups and dunks that he so firmly believes he can expand beyond. But for now, Robinson gets alley-oops and putbacks, and after going 6-of-7 on Thursday night, he’s shooting a ridiculous 78.8% on the season.[More Knicks] Kemba Walker can’t make predictions about unpredictable knee »
Jose Alvarado, an undrafted rookie on a two-way deal, impressed with 13 points in 20 minutes off the bench for New Orleans. Alvarado is a Brooklyn native and Christ the King alum, and he was emotional after the hometown win. “It’s like a dream come true,” Alvarado said. “It’s crazy. I’m at the Garden, I won…and my people are right there,” he said, adding that Ingram and Hart bought additional tickets for his family and Ingram gave his jersey to a family member. “You can’t make that up.”
At least someone walked away from the Garden happy Thursday night.