Knicks forward Julius Randle looks on in the second half...

Knicks forward Julius Randle looks on in the second half of an NBA game against the Jazz at Madison Square Garden on March 20. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Last season, Julius Randle reveled in the adoration from the Madison Square Garden crowd once fans were allowed in, chants of “MVP” showering down on him as a reward for a job well done.

But this season as Randle has gone from an outlier second-team All-NBA player to a struggling and frustrated shell of that player, the response has been far different from the home crowd. There are regular boos, maybe reaching a peak Monday against Chicago, and regular cries of, “Obi” for his backup, Obi Toppin.

And when a 1-for-9 shooting night that had him on the bench for much of the fourth quarter Monday was over and the Knicks were gathering on the court to celebrate a fourth straight victory, Randle grabbed a rebound as time expired and flung the ball in the air behind him and walked directly to the locker room.

The body language was awful. The frustration was clear. But the cause or the effect was uncertain, but it was enough that a New York radio station claimed that according to an unconfirmed report Randle asked the Knicks front office for a trade following the game.

Randle didn’t speak after the game Monday and Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau was left to address the rumor and the frustrations before Wednesday night’s game against the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden.

“Are you serious?” Thibodeau said. “Are you serious? C’mon. You know I’m not going to respond to something like that anyway. Let’s be real.”

Strong, but also not a denial. So Thibodeau was asked a follow-up: To your knowledge does Randle want remain in New York?

“Yeah, so as a coach, you coach the players that you have,” Thibodeau said, again not directly addressing the question. “And you love them all. And I do. If you play for me, I love you. It’s really that simple. The challenge for us is to bring the best out of each other.”

Thibodeau may love Randle and all of his players, but the bigger problem is twofold: Does Randle love New York and will New York love him?

The Knicks showed him the love as a reward for last season, signing him in the summer to a four-year extension worth at least $106 million (bonuses could raise it to as much as $117 million, but he’s likely lost some of those incentives already this season). Now, that contract, while not completely out of line with a player since he is still averaging 20.1 points, 10 rebounds and 5.1 assists, is just an added point of emphasis for the fans to gripe.

Randle has been one thing in his Knicks career and that is available — the three games he missed with a sore right quadriceps tendon last week were more than he had missed due to injury in his three seasons combined in New York. But he has been there in body, but sometimes it seems as if he is not in spirit. He has been fined by the NBA for numerous infractions, including obscenities directed at the fan base.

“Well, look, every year is different,” Thibodeau said. “You’re faced with new and different challenges. There are a lot of things — this year didn’t go like last year did. Hopefully we can finish up like we did last year. Things change all the time. They can change from going real good to bad quickly and they can go from being not as good as you would like to great real quick, also. Just keep going. I think it goes with the turf. You’re going to get a lot of credit. You’re going to get a lot of blame. That’s the way it works here. Stay focused, come in the next day and just keep working. Just keep working.

“Hey look. This is the best place in the league to play and I’ve been just about every place. So I’m speaking from experience. This place is special. The fans are passionate. We know what basketball means to this city. We’ve got to give them something to be proud of. We’ve got to come out, we’ve got to play hard. We’ve got to play for each other, we’ve got to play smart. And if we do that, sometimes you could lose a game and play well. You’ve got to remember; the other team’s pretty good too. Last year was different, was a different year. We never really got hit with COVID last year. We got hit with COVID this year. So there’s a lot of things that go into it. But you’ve got to keep battling with it every day. And that’s where it lies.”

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