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Julius Randle apologetic after fighting a battle he can't win

Julius Randle of the New York Knicks against

Julius Randle of the New York Knicks against the Boston Celtics at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 6, 2022. Credit: Getty Images/Al Bello

It might have seemed like a battle the Knicks couldn’t win when they fell behind the Celtics by 25 points Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. That, it turned out, wasn’t true. Evan Fournier’s 41 points, Julius Randle’s aggressive play and RJ Barrett’s last-second prayer pulled out the improbable comeback victory.

The much harder fight came late in the game and afterward, when Randle let his frustrations boil over.

Midway through the fourth quarter, he gave the "thumbs down'' signal to the fans who had turned their boos into cheers, and when asked about it after the game, he explained his message to the hometown fans as "Shut the [expletive] up."

On Friday night, he posted a kinder 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 an example of how sometimes you say things you regret to people you love, even if it came from a place of passion and deep love.

"Nobody 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 battle that, even if Randle felt he got his message out Thursday, can’t be won.

He signed a four-year extension this past summer after a career season in which he earned second-team All-NBA honors and was named the league’s Most Improved Player. And last season, after fans were allowed in the Garden, he regularly was serenaded with chants of "M-V-P!"

But this season the Knicks have struggled to repeat their success, and Randle’s production has not matched what he did last season. The Garden crowd and social media voices have not been kind. He’s heard the talk that Obi Toppin should get some of his minutes on the court, and some even celebrated when he entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols last week.

On Wednesday, he insisted he doesn't care about any opinions outside of the Knicks' locker room and front office. But on Thursday, he heard the boos, and when they turned to cheers as he and the Knicks played better en route 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 probably wasn’t happy about that.

"Honestly, no big deal. If I were him, playing hard as hell, and he played well. So when you give everything you have into something and you give so much into something and it doesn’t work out, or you’re being called out, it’s frustrating. But it’s the business we’re in. And Julius is the image 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 the frustration or to express it — not even the first in New York to attempt the exact same move during the last year, as Mets fans well know. But it’s a war he can’t win.

"I don’t understand," Charles Barkley said on TNT after the game. "As a player, this is the way the thing works. We ain’t doctors, we ain’t lawyers. If you play good, people cheer you. If you play bad, people boo you. That’s the deal you make with fans."

Randle’s frustration can be understood, particularly the things he read online when he was quarantined after testing positive. But as Barkley noted, it’s the way it works. Randle was hardly received as a hero his first season with the Knicks, but he rebounded to win them over.

"If I remember well, his first year here, he was getting booed consistently," Fournier said. "And then he bounced back and had an incredible year, so that shows a lot of mental toughness. So I’m not worried about him."

After a very slow start 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 game back from the protocols, he had 30 points and 16 rebounds.

"He plays basketball," Barrett said. "What’d he have, another 20-point game tonight? He’s playing, man. He’s hooping no matter what. All we can control is what we do, us in the locker room, us in this organization. Just play together and try to win."

New York Sports