Julius Randle is back on his pandemic groove.
The Knicks power forward, who earned his first and only All-Star appearance playing in empty arenas during this shortened 2020-21 season, dropped 33 points on Friday – giving him 67 for the last two games ( and averaging 27.2 points in the last six) – as the Knicks beat the injury-riddled Hornets, 121-102.
“He cooks, man,” RJ Barrett said of Randle. “He really got us started.”
Tom Thibodeau praised Randle’s restlessness, which has had its ups and downs this season.
“He’s playing a great all-around game,” Thibodeau said. “And that sets the tone for our team.”
It was the third straight win for the Knicks (13-13), who climbed to .500 for the first time since Nov. 21.
The Knicks are also undefeated since Thibodeau reduced his rotation to nine players, increasing the minutes of Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride while benching Derrick Rose and Cam Reddish.
New York’s defense was the biggest beneficiary of the new rotation — especially on the perimeter — with Friday’s effort representing another big push to contest the 3-pointer (Charlotte shot 6-for-26 from beyond the ‘bow).
Thibodeau credited Grimes and McBride for the defensive boost.
“They have a knack for it,” said the coach.
Barrett added 26 points. Seven Knicks scored in double figures. Jalen Brunson had 11 assists. Mitchell Robinson grabbed 13 rebounds, including six offensive. The Knicks opened the blast with an 18-5 run to end the third quarter, giving them an 18-point advantage and a strong homecoming after the one-game road trip.
There was still good fortune for the Knicks. They caught up with another injury devastated team. The Hornets (7-19), among the most disappointing teams in the league, were missing their best players LaMelo Ball (sprained ankle) and Gordon Hayward (broken shoulder).
So far this season they have missed the following stars through injury, illness or suspension: Ball (Hornets), Joel Embiid (Sixers), Nikola Jokic (Nuggets), Chris Paul (Suns), Dame Lillard ( Blazers), Kyrie Irving (Nets) and Dejounte Murray (Hawks).
They have won five of those seven games.
Friday was the first night without Obi Toppin, who broke a bone in his right leg on Wednesday and is likely out for a month or more. Thibodeau stuck to his nine-player rotation by giving minutes to Jericho Sims, who played two centers with the second unit (Hartenstein was the other).
Sims logged 12 minutes and played well enough to keep his place.
“I like the size of Jericho and Isaiah together,” Thibodeau said. “Everyone played well.”
Thibodeau resisted again playing Reddish, who recorded their third straight DNP. As reported by the Daily News, representatives for the Knicks and Reddish are working on a trade.
The Lakers are rumored to be interested, although the trade season typically doesn’t kick off until mid-December, when players signed this summer are eligible for a deal.