It could have seemed like a game the Knicks could not win as they fell behind the Celtics by 25 points Thursday night in Madison Square Garden. It turned out that was not true. Evan Fournier’s 41 points, Julius Randle’s aggressive play and RJ Barrett’s last second prayer pulled out the unlikely comeback victory.
The much tougher fight came late in the fight and afterwards as Randle let his frustrations boil over.
Midway through the fourth quarter, he gave the “thumbs down” signal to fans who had turned their buh into cheers, and when asked about it after the match, he explained his message to hometown fans as “Close [expletive] up.”
Friday night, he posted a friendlier message on his Instagram account. He said in part: “I understand that my actions also represent the league, this organization and the city, and that I should have handled things last night differently and expressed myself with more professionalism and more appropriate language in the heat of the moment. My comment was a example of how you sometimes say things you regret to people you love, even if it came from a place of passion and deep love.
“No one wants to win more than me and I will continue to show loyalty and dedication to my teammates, the entire Knicks organization and the fans who have shown me and my family so much love …”
This is a match that, although Randle felt he got his message out on Thursday, cannot be won.
He signed a four-year extension last summer after a career season in which he achieved second-team All-NBA honors and was named the league’s most improved player. And last season, after fans were allowed to enter the garden, he was regularly defeated with songs about “MVP!”
But this season, the Knicks have struggled to replicate their success, and Randle’s production has not matched what he did last season. The garden audience and the voices of the social media have not been friendly. He has heard talk that Obi Toppin should get some of his minutes on the field, and some even celebrated when he stepped into the NBA’s health and safety protocols last week.
On Wednesday, he insisted he did not care about any opinions outside the Knicks’ locker room and front office. But on Thursday, he heard the bows, and when they turned to cheers as he and the Knicks played better on their way to their 108-105 victory over Boston, he had had enough.
“Jules, getting to know him, he’s an emotional guy,” Fournier said. “Because he puts emotion into everything he does. I did not see what happened. He was probably not happy about that.
“Honestly, no big deal. If I was him, he played hard as hell, and he played well. So when you give everything you have to something, and you give so much to something, and it does not work, or you’re being called out, it’s frustrating. But that’s the business we’re in. And Julius is the picture of the franchise. He’s the star player, so of course he’s going to get more criticism. And I think he understands that. “
Randle is not the first player to feel or express frustration – not even the first in New York to try the exact same move over the past year that Mets fans know. But it’s a war he can not win.
“I do not understand,” Charles Barkley told TNT after the match. “As a player, that’s how things work. We’re not doctors, we’re not lawyers. If you play well, people cheer on you. If you play badly, people bub you. That’s the deal you make with fans.”
Randle’s frustration can be understood, especially the things he read online when he was in quarantine after testing positive. But as Barkley noted, this is how it works. Randle was hardly received as a hero his first season with the Knicks, but he rebounded to win them.
“If I remember correctly, his first year here, he was constantly bowing,” Fournier said. “And then he came back and had an incredible year, so it shows a lot of mental toughness. So I’m not worried about him.”
After a very slow start on Thursday night, Randle finished with 22 points, eight rebounds – and no turnovers in 38:24, remarkable for someone who handles the ball as much as he does. Two nights earlier, in his first fight back from the Protocols, he had 30 points and 16 rebounds.
“He plays basketball,” Barrett said. “What did he have, another match with 20 points tonight? He plays, man. He jumps no matter what. The only thing we can control is what we do, us in the locker room, us in this organization. Just play together and try to win. “