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Knicks' schedule is taking a tough turn

The Knicks' Julius Randle drives against the Bulls'

The Knicks' Julius Randle drives against the Bulls' Lonzo Ball during the second half of a NBA game Sunday in Chicago. Credit: AP/Paul Beaty

CHICAGO — If you’re looking for a bright spot as you stare at the Knicks’ upcoming schedule, consider this: They have played their worst games this season against their worst opponents. Oddly, they play up and down to the level of the competition.

The Knicks will need something to create some optimism because their play on the court has not done that. They struggled against two of the league’s worst teams in recent days, losing to the Magic and needing a fourth-quarter flurry to overcome the Rockets. On Sunday night, they competed well against the surging Bulls, the start of a brutal gantlet through an assortment of last season’s playoff teams and this season’s surprising front-runners.

And Tuesday night they will do it against the Lakers at a sold- out Garden in front of a national television audience, an opportunity to see if they are ready for prime time. The test got slightly easier on Monday when LeBron James was suspended for the game for his part in Sunday’s scuffle in Detroit.

With wins against Milwaukee, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia (two, in fact), the Knicks have gotten up for tests, and more of them are about to come.

"Eventually we will figure out how to compete and play at that level every night," Julius Randle said. "We won’t have to wait for a big game to get up and play like that. Eventually, we’ll get there. I know for sure we’ll be up for the challenge.

"It makes me happy just because I know we’re going to come in ready, mentally sharp, ready to compete. Yeah, I like those games."

The Knicks will host the Lakers and the red-hot Suns before flying to Atlanta for the second half of a back-to-back set. Then they’ll face the Nets in Brooklyn before hosting the Bulls and Nuggets. After three games in four nights on the road, they’ll return home for the Bucks and Golden State.

Randle performed well in Chicago, contributing 34 points and 10 rebounds. But he had no help offensively or defensively as the Knicks could not stop DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine.

"I do think we’ll be a lot better," Kemba Walker said. "We’ve got some ways to go to get better. We’re still figuring out things together. We’re going to keep on working and learn from our mistakes."

The Lakers entered the season with higher expectations than the Knicks, the darling of many prognosticators to win the NBA title with James and Anthony Davis joined by Russell Westbrook and an assortment of new faces. But the Lakers are 9-9, struggling when James was sidelined to rehabilitate an abdominal strain. They will be shorthanded again with James suspended for one game after being ejected for a hit above the shoulders to Isaiah Stewart. That precipitated an on-court scuffle, with the bloody Stewart repeatedly trying to get at James.

One Knick joked before leaving the United Center, "The NBA ain’t suspending LeBron at MSG on TNT." But the NBA issued the punishment Monday.

" I watched the game the other day," Walker said. "Those guys got 13, 14 new guys. It’s a lot of new guys to get adjusted to, so things just don’t work out that fast. It just takes time. When it clicks, it clicks. Everyone has to adjust, figure out new roles, new teammates. It’s an adjustment period. Unfortunately, it comes in losses."

"They’re trying to figure out just like we are," Randle said. "That’s the league. This is probably the most balanced I’ve seen the league since I’ve been in it. It’s my eighth year. I haven’t seen the league this balanced where it’s competitive every single night. Really not any nights off, honestly. So yeah, this is definitely the most competitive. Sometimes they look great, sometimes they look bad. Like I said, it’s just the league; they’re trying to figure it out and get on a roll like we are."

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