Knicks forward Julius Randle puts up a shot over Atlanta...

Knicks forward Julius Randle puts up a shot over Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter during the second half of an NBA game Saturday in Atlanta. Credit: AP/Butch Dill

ATLANTA — Julius Randle absorbed the taunts of the crowd, but this time it was where those taunts belonged, in the hostile environment of State Farm Arena. So when he responded with his play — and his thumb — it was exactly what the Knicks needed.

Randle lit a fire for a Knicks squad that was fading after watching a 17-point lead dwindle to two in the fourth quarter. With a 24-point, nine-assist effort, he led them to a 117-108 win over the struggling Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night.

And when the Knicks finally could breathe easily in the final moments, Randle, with a smile, responded to Hawks fans with a thumbs-down gesture.

With the arena suddenly rocking and the Knicks leading by three, Randle found RJ Barrett with a cross-court pass for a three-pointer and a 106-100 lead. Then, surrounded by defenders under the basket, Randle pump-faked, drew contact, dropped in a layup and drew a foul. As he walked from under the rim, he signaled a thumbs-down, but this time to the detractors behind the Hawks’ bench.

He missed the free throw but little else as the Knicks kept the run going. After the Hawks cut deficits of 70-53 and 90-77 to 93-91, a 10-0 burst helped the Knicks take a 117-103 lead. With the Knicks having secured the last laugh, the crowd that had been chanting "Trae’s your daddy" to Randle was streaming for the exits.

"I thought Julius made great reads all game long and then that got us going," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "You can’t say enough about the way RJ is playing, also. When those guys are aggressive like that, it opens things up. I thought the rebounding was a big factor.

"Defense in the first half was really good. I thought once we got up early in the third — we got up 17 — we sort of got loose, and you can’t do that in this league. You get loose against a good offensive team, which they are, and they can chop 10 points off in a minute, and they did. So then you’re fighting for your life, and that’s what we did."

The only familiar reminder of the rivalry from last season, when the Hawks knocked the Knicks out of the postseason with an easy five-game opening-round series victory, was the sponsored fan section that serenaded the Knicks with insults throughout the game.

It marked a fifth straight loss for the surprisingly disappointing Hawks (17-25) and a third consecutive win, fifth in six games and eighth in 11 games for the Knicks (22-21).

Barrett (26 points) carried the load early in the game with 13 points and three assists in the first 14 minutes before he took a breather. Evan Fournier had 18 points and Alec Burks added 17 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. With Clint Capela out of action for Atlanta, Mitchell Robinson had 14 points and 13 rebounds.

Trae Young had 29 points and Danilo Gallinari added 17 for the Hawks.

The Knicks led 42-38 when Randle re-entered the game with 7:18 left in the first half. He went to the free-throw line and hit a pair just 11 seconds later, beginning a streak in which he took over the game and turned a tight contest into a one-sided halftime lead.

After Young hit a stepback jumper, Randle connected on a midrange jumper and fed Robinson for a dunk. Randle then hit a jumper on the baseline, a three-pointer, a driving layup and a dunk. He then dropped off a pass to Fournier for a three-pointer, capping a run of 18 straight points that Randle either scored or assisted on. With Randle up to 15 points and six assists, the Knicks built a 65-51 halftime lead.

"It’s a great team win," Barrett said. "They really fought back, but a number of us made big plays down the stretch. So that was fun to watch."

Notes & quotes: Nerlens Noel warmed up and was on the bench at the start of the game, but he was unable to get a sore left knee loose and never entered the game. He was ruled out in the first quarter . . . The two players involved in the Knicks-Hawks trade last week did not play. New Knick Cam Reddish has a sprained ankle and new Hawk Kevin Knox was on the bench but did not get into the game.

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