Team leader Julius Randle sensed it. The Knicks needed Wednesday’s rematch in Chicago. They needed it badly.
The Knicks were at a crossroads, having lost five of six games after dropping a bad one to the Bulls on Monday at United Center. They had fallen to 11th in the Eastern Conference, four games under .500.
“Sort of like a playoff game, you’re playing the same team in such a short time,’’’ Randle said beforehand.
“We’ve got to make our adjustments. The biggest thing is we’ve just got to have more of a sense of urgency to start the game — look at it as a must-win. We can’t lose two in a row on this trip.’’
Randle made sure of it.
The Knicks prevailed, 107-103, and Randle played like Captain Randle — the type of game that was better than the box score. And the box score was real good — 27 points, six assists, six rebounds, 5-for-7 on 3-pointers.
Randle’s 3-point shooting has been otherworldly this season. He posted a frigid 27.7 rate from downtown in 2019-20. He’s shooting 38 percent from 3 now.
“Honestly, it just wasn’t a great season shooting the ball from 3 last year,’’ Randle said. “It’s something I got in the lab and tightened things up. Repetitions and confidence, man. My mental approach is completely different. I have unlimited confidence in it.’’
While embattled starting point guard Elfrid Payton chalked up a solid outing, Randle wouldn’t let the Knicks lose, not even when the Bulls charged back from 19 points down to within three down the stretch. Randle carried the Knicks home — on defense and offense.
“That’s what we expect from him — a veteran leader, play strong on both sides of the ball, share the ball, make the right plays and set an example for everyone,’’ Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He gives the team the belief we can win. You get that by making hustle plays. The more hustle plays, the more it ignites and inspires the team. That’s what we expect from him.’’
One of Randle’s six assists came with 4:40 left. The Bulls were charging for the first time all night. Chicago trailed by 19 late in the first period, by 15 points after three. Now the deficit was three, under five minutes left. The Knicks’ easy walk through United Center had become a painful sprint toward the end.
And here was Randle, barreling into the lane, double-teamed, firing a pass to Reggie Bullock in the corner. Bullock drained the trey, jacked the edge to six and ultimately stymied the surge. Last season, Randle would have forced something unsightly.
There were more big moments late for Randle, coming after his strong 15-point first half. This time, he took matters in his own hands, sinking a tough jumper over a double team just inside the free-throw line with 2:00 left to make it 106-99.
Almost over. But then Randle came up with his most enlightening play with 1:00 left, the Bulls still sniffing around, down five.
Showing quick feet on defense — a testament to his new stamina — Randle darted to the perimeter, hounded Bulls stud Zach LaVine, harassed him into a contested 3-pointer with 1:00 left. It missed badly. Over.
With three rugged upcoming games against the Trail Blazers and a home-and-home versus the NBA finalist Heat, the Knicks needed this against the humdrum Bulls.
At a crossroads in Chicago, the Knicks took the correct fork by winning in a city in which Thibodeau has done his best work.
They battered the Bulls from the start and could fly back to New York relieved to snatch a sliver of fading momentum — their record 10-13.
That 34-17 first quarter was a masterpiece. Everything clicked. They hounded the Bulls into an 0-for-8 brick show from the 3-point line.
Meanwhile, Randle drained three straight 3-pointers on three straight possessions, putting on his All-Star ballcap. Nobody can remember if Randle ever hit two straight 3s all last season.
Randle put up 15 points in 18 minutes in the first half. If he’s not being considered by the coaches for the All-Star team, something is very wrong.
The NBA is finalizing plans to restore the All-Star Game in Atlanta and Randle sounded like he expected to be there.
“It will be great to be a part of,’’ Randle said.
As written here previously, Randle should be considered under a new lens — not as trade bait, but as an emerging star to be embraced. He set the tone Wednesday as captains do.
The Nets have their three future Hall-of-Famers in James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
And the Nets own the TV ratings since Harden’s Jan. 16 debut, outperforming the Knicks by 10 percent in viewership in the New York market, according to industry sources.
For now, the Knicks have Randle, who has never been on a winning team and has lost a ton of games in his previous six seasons.
In his seventh season, Randle is the main reason the Knicks have 10 victories. In his seventh season, Randle is looking like a winner.