DETROIT — The night had already been a celebration for Julius Randle, pouring in a season-high 36 points on his 28th birthday Tuesday night, when he took a feed from Jalen Brunson cutting down the lane on a fast break.
Randle threw down a powerful dunk over Isaiah Stewart and paused to stare down the Pistons center. Stewart, whose most viral NBA moment came when he ran through more defenders than Barry Sanders to try to attack LeBron James, did not take kindly to it and shoved Randle in the chest.
But Randle wasn’t spoiling the party. He just put his arms up and continued on, exaggerating the shove as he nearly circled the court, unwilling to send any fine money to the league on his birthday. When play resumed with a technical on Stewart, Randle continued on until he finally went to the bench, the one-sided 140-110 win secured.
“I’ve got to save my money,” Randle said. “I’ve got two kids.”
It took little time for Randle to serve notice that this was going to be a different kind of night. He connected on 4-for-5 from beyond the arc in the first four minutes of the game. By the end of the first quarter, he was up to 17 points and he had 26 at the half, finishing the night 14-for-24 overall and 6-for-13 from three.
“He was super aggressive, great rhythm, moved really well without the ball,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “His teammates searched him out. A lot of movement, was good, very good.”
The Knicks (10-11) struggled to shake the Pistons early, allowing the pieced-together Detroit lineup to convert 66.7% from the field in the first quarter, including 62.5% from three. But they pulled away to take a 70-56 halftime lead. And it wasn’t just Randle who was contributing. Jalen Brunson had 13 of his 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting, draining both of his attempts from three, and Grimes was 3-for-3 from long range, finishing the game 6-for-7 for 16 points.
“He was playing well from the start,” Brunson said of Randle. “Hot player . . . I’ve got to give him the ball. He was putting the ball through the hoop. Not much I can say about it. He was just feeling it.”
“Yeah, the shots were there,” Randle said. “So I don’t know. They were going in. I don’t really think [about records]. Just be aggressive and make plays off of that.”
The Knicks certainly weren’t taking any team lightly, not even a Pistons squad that possesses the worst record in the NBA at 5-18 and were missing their young backcourt duo of last year’s No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham and this summer’s No. 5 pick, Jaden Ivey.
In need of a win of any kind, it was a rare easy one for the Knicks, who were recovering from a pair of heartbreaking losses at home. In those two games, Brunson misfired on potential game-winning or game-tying shots at the end.
This time Brunson, Randle, RJ Barrett and Grimes took the entire fourth quarter off as the lead ballooned to as much as 32 points.
With the Milwaukee Bucks, a far more formidable opponent, on deck Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, the early move to the bench for the starters was a welcome move.
“Hell yeah,” Randle said, smiling. “Absolutely. For sure.”
“I think it’s important that we came away with this win, no matter how it happened,” Brunson said.
“We’ve got to keep stacking wins. Even the previous two games, losing by one possession, whatever it was, it’s tough when we’re losing games but we’re building. We’re building and so just got to keep stacking them, keep translating it and keep progressing every game.”
“Just to play well,” Thibodeau said. “We know we got another test tomorrow night. That’s the nature of the league. Sometimes the schedule is in your favor. Sometimes it’s not, but you got to be ready every night. That’s what brings the best out of players.”