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Knicks' Julius Randle: 'It seems we don't have a lot of chemistry right now'

Charlotte Hornets forward Gordon Hayward (20) guards Knicks

Charlotte Hornets forward Gordon Hayward (20) guards Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.  Credit: AP/Jacob Kupferman

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Julius Randle stood against a wall in the corridor outside the locker room late Friday night, the last one to leave and head to the bus. He answered questions in a low whisper, not angry, just seeming as confused as everyone else about what is happening with the Knicks right now.

After carrying them on his shoulders to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and a 41-31 record last season, earning second-team All-NBA honors and the league’s Most Improved Player Award, Randle has not seen his numbers drop drastically through the first 13 games this season. But if it’s hard to explain, it’s harder to deny that something just doesn’t look right with him.

He hasn’t been alone, but this is the season that he wasn’t supposed to be. The Knicks brought in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, inserting them in the starting lineup to relieve the pressure on Randle to do everything. The need was exposed in the playoffs last season when Atlanta schemed to stop Randle and there was no one to help other than Derrick Rose.

But with the new lineup has come odd struggles. The group seems hesitant and disjointed, searching for its roles and how and when to attack, and the starters have been decidedly outperformed by the second unit lately.

In Friday’s loss to the Hornets, Randle shot 4-for-15 and had only 10 points. He didn’t score until there was 2:51 left in the first half and then had seven straight points. Walker carried the load early, scoring 17 of his season-high 26 points in the first quarter. But Randle gave them nothing early, RJ Barrett finished the night 1-for-9 for two points and Fournier added only five points.

Fournier said before the game that the offense has turned stagnant at times, and it was hard to disagree.

"It seems we don’t have a lot of chemistry right now," Randle said. "We have to keep working through it."

The Knicks’ 7-6 record — and particularly the 5-1 start to the season — may have hidden some of the difficulties in making the adjustment to the new starting lineup.

In a loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday, after the starters let the game turn into a blowout in the third quarter, coach Tom Thibodeau buried them on the bench for the final 16 minutes. The reserves fought back from a 24-point deficit to tie before running out of gas.

On Friday, Thibodeau again saw the reserves play better after a third-quarter sleepwalk by the starters. This time he went back to the starters down the stretch, and the result was a 13-3 finish by the Hornets to put the game away.

Randle is leading the Knicks with 21.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, but his shooting percentage has dipped to 41.9% from last season’s 45.6%. From beyond the arc, he converted 41.1% last season and is at 35.9% now.

"I think sometimes when you’re winning, there’s things that you’ve still got to work on that’s not magnified as much because you’re winning," he said. "So I think it wasn’t perfect. We were winning games, but it wasn’t perfect. So we’ve just got to keep working at it."

"It’s not a one-person thing," Thibodeau said. "It’s our group. We’ve got to function well together as a group. We’ve got to bring the best out in each other. Everyone has the responsibility to execute, to share the ball, to be in the right spots. That’s what we have to do, and when we do that, we know we’re a very good offense."

Said Walker, "It’s going to take energy. It’s going to take pride. It’s going to take five guys to do it. It’s going to take us five. We’ve got to figure it out.

"We just have to or else," he added, laughing, "Won’t be good for us. Won’t be good for us. So it needs to get better. It just needs to get better. There’s so much that goes into energy. There’s communication, the body movement. There’s things that contribute to that, Like I said, it needs to be five guys at once, not just two or three. It’s got to be all of us as a unit."

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