Beginning a week from now, when the fans begin to trickle back into Madison Square Garden, maybe the sort of start the Knicks had Monday night will be enough to drive the crowd into a frenzy and ignite an end-to-end blowout for the home team.
In a still-empty arena, the Knicks built 20-7 and 42-28 leads, only to face a seven-point deficit in the third quarter. But as they have for much of the season, they turned to Julius Randle to bail them out.
After scoring 17 points in the first quarter, Randle exploded again after the Knicks fell behind and finished with 44 points in a 123-112 win over the Hawks. He also had a career-high seven three-pointers (in 13 attempts), nine rebounds and five assists.
What would the Garden have sounded like with fans filling the rafters? Would the chants about Randle deserving to be named an All-Star have echoed through the arena?
Instead, it was pumped-in sounds of applause as Randle made a strong case for a spot in the game, which will be played in Atlanta next month.
As Randle went to the microphone setup for the postgame courtside interview, his teammates surrounded him and Theo Pinson said, "If this man’s not an All-Star, it’s a problem."
"Absolutely. And it’s not just what he’s done statistically, but the impact on winning, I think," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He’s making other people better. He’s played an all-around game, strong on both sides of the ball. He’s played an unselfish game. He’s doing it in a number of different ways. He’s playing multiple positions. He’s a point forward, he’s a forward, he’s a center. He’s doing it all.
"But the most important thing is the impact that he’s having on winning, and hopefully it’ll be recognized. But I know there’s great appreciation by his teammates and his coaches, the organization, certainly our fans, for what he’s bringing to our team."
It was the third straight win for the Knicks (14-15), who are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, two games ahead of the Hawks.
While the calls come for an All-Star Game, Randle is sure of one thing — that he’s playing the best ball of his career.
"Yeah, for sure. I just feel like my game is at a level that it hasn’t been at before," he said. "Mentally I’m at a level that I haven’t been at before, and I just want to keep building and keep growing every day."
With the Knicks clinging to a two-point lead, Randle saved a failing possession by burying a long three-point field goal to make it 112-107 with 3:18 remaining. After a three-pointer by RJ Barrett (21 points), Randle delivered a high-arcing baseline jumper while nearly falling out of bounds to give the Knicks a 117-109 lead with 1:36 left.
"The first thing is it’s hard not to put him in the game," Barrett said. "What else does he have to do? The man’s an All-Star."
"It’s an amazing feeling," Randle said. "For me, those guys trust in me and believe in me every night to go out and lead the team, is a great feeling. It’s a collective thing, what we’re doing out there, and I just try to be the best leader as possible that I can be. Just try to be a guy that they want to follow or a guy that they trust to lead the team. For me, I just try to do everything the right way. Be a guy they can lean on and go about the game the right way."
It was Randle’s highest-scoring game as a Knick, just shy of the 45 points he scored as a member of the Pelicans two years ago.
Immanuel Quickley added 16 points and five assists off the bench for the Knicks, shooting 4-for-8 from three-point range. Trae Young had 23 points and eight assists for the Hawks.