PHOENIX — Through the Knicks’ struggles this season, Julius Randle has spoken often about awareness . . . the need for the team to understand the situation and methodically execute properly through it.
If he had listened to his own words, he would have been aware of the situation Friday night against the Phoenix Suns.
With just under three minutes left in the third quarter, the Knicks — losers of their previous six games and clinging to the fantasy of a run to the postseason — were 10 points up on the Suns, who have been the best team in the league this season. Randle was the most dominant player on either team to that point, playing with a desperation that reflected an awareness of just what the Knicks needed.
And then in an instant, he blew up in a tantrum that coach Tom Thibodeau and Randle’s teammates — left to speak for him, as he was unavailable afterward — were hard-pressed to understand or explain.
Banging for position under the rim, he and Cam Johnson collided with each other, the sort of innocuous contact that happens countless times every game. After Johnson gave Randle a push in the back, Randle rushed at him and the two went chest-to-chest. When referee Dedric Taylor pushed between them, Randle went through him and shoved Johnson hard, earning a pair of technicals and an ejection.
At that point, Randle had scored 25 points in 28:08. Johnson would outscore him 24-0 the rest of the way.
The result was predictable. Leading by 14 early in the fourth quarter, the Knicks went cold without Randle, scoring 21 points in the period. Johnson scored 21 in the fourth quarter by himself, banking in a straightaway three-pointer from 30 feet at the buzzer for the game-winner.
Johnson wound up scoring a career-high 38 points off the bench in only 28:13. He shot 9-for-12 from three-point range, including 6-for-7 from outside the arc in the fourth quarter.
After Alec Burks missed the second of two free throws with 7.1 seconds left, leaving the Knicks up by two, Suns point guard Cam Payne rushed the ball downcourt and Johnson ran just past the midcourt line and stopped. Payne turned and zipped the ball back to Johnson, who took one dribble and fired. His previous three-pointers were all nothing but net; this one slammed off the backboard and in, leaving the fans in a frenzy and the Knicks in stunned silence.
And what Randle had to be aware of was that he was as responsible as anyone on the Knicks not only for the lead they built but for the latest in a string of soul-crushing losses.
"It’s an emotional game, but you can’t cross over that line," Thibodeau said. "You’ve got to know where to stop. And none of us are perfect, we’re going to make mistakes. But we’ve got to be disciplined."
"He was hooping," RJ Barrett said. "He was carrying us tonight. For him to go down in the third was tough . . . I think he was on his way to a 40-point night. It would’ve helped us, just the energy he was bringing to the game. But no matter what, I think we still should’ve won that game."
That frustration would boil over perhaps should not be surprising for a Knicks team that has lost 17 of its last 20 games, including the last seven, and fallen six games out of the final Eastern Conference play-in spot. But again, awareness is not just a need to execute an offensive set but to control one’s temper. Randle penned a Players Tribune column last year detailing his need to curb his outbursts on the court.
There were good things in the game for the Knicks, and they tried to cling to those afterward — a 17-point, 15-rebound, four-steal, three-block night from Mitchell Robinson as he outplayed Deandre Ayton, Barrett overcoming a 6-for-26 shooting night to score 20 points and come up big when Randle went out, and just the fact that the reeling team was up on the Suns (51-12).
Right now, awareness means understanding a situation in which jobs are on the line — the coach, the front office and a roster full of players who were shopped at the trade deadline and who all are on the clock right now.