If there was some question how the Madison Square Garden crowd would greet the Knicks after Julius Randle sent a harsh message to the fans last week, the answer came in loud and steady cheers and chants.
The difference was that the MVP chants and shouts of his name that accompanied Randle’s every move last season was that the shouts and cheers were for RJ Barrett.
Randle went under the radar in the boxscore and with the fans. It was Barrett who stole the show, scoring 31 points to lift the Knicks to a 111-96 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night as the Knicks reached the season’s halfway point at 20-21.
The Spurs were on the last stop of a seven-game road trip that began before the calendar turned to 2022, had played an overtime game in Brooklyn on Sunday and were missing eight players, including six in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. They hung around for a half but steadily faded.
But the shorthanded Spurs were not the attraction here. Randle endured a confounding night as he returned to his home court and scored two points in 34 minutes, his lowest output in three seasons with the Knicks. He sat at the end of the bench as Obi Toppin slammed in celebratory lobs, with the fans alternating chants for Toppin and derisive shouts at Randle.
"We love our fans. Our fans are fantastic," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "There’s no better place to play in the NBA. I think everyone would tell you that. There’s an appreciation for them. But along with it, there’s going to be praise; there’s going to be criticism, and don’t get wrapped up in either.
"The important thing is to lock into the team, your job, the next day, winning, your opponent, get ready to go so you can play well. And look, we play well, we know how much our fans love this team, and we love them."
The seats were not yet nearly filled and the crowd was quiet at the Garden despite the pulsing music playing for the player introductions. But when Randle was introduced — he was the last member of the Knicks’ starting lineup to be announced — the reaction was subdued, with light boos. And maybe that was a positive start.
Randle’s last meeting with the home crowd went far worse. Weeks of frustration culminated in his decision to make a thumbs-down gesture to the fans and clarify it afterward as a message to "shut the [expletive] up."
Randle hit his first shot but finished the half 1-for-6 from the floor with two turnovers. And the last image from the half — Randle attempting to isolate and take a step-back three-point field goal — was the ball just grazing the rim and the boos coming again, even with the Knicks holding a two-point lead.
He missed his first shot of the second half and didn’t attempt another one the rest of the way, finishing with three turnovers but getting 12 rebounds.
"For us to be a team that we want, of course we need a Julius that’s aggressive and scoring points," Evan Fournier said. "His aggressiveness, it’s obviously very good for us. So we have to find ways to get ourselves going and to make sure he gets the ball in his spots so he can make his game."
"The most important thing is our team winning," Thibodeau said. "We’ve got to find a way to win. That’s what I want everyone’s focus to be. I don’t want anyone getting wrapped up in any personal dilemmas or any of that stuff. Everything has to be team-first.
"Just focus in on the team. Bring everything you have to our team. Bring energy to the team. Bring toughness to our team.
"Look, there’s going to be ups and downs throughout the course of the year. You’ve got to be mentally tough when you face adversity, everyone does. Probably the most important thing in life. Sometimes it goes our way, sometimes it doesn’t. Just navigate through it all."
The Knicks still managed to pull away in the second half with Barrett carrying much of the offensive load. After scoring 32 points at San Antonio earlier this season, he repeated that success.
Barrett started the fourth quarter with a three-point field goal and, after a San Antonio turnover, scored inside. With the Knicks leading by 12, a loud "R-J-Bar-rett!" chant echoed through the Garden.
A turnaround jumper in the lane pushed him over 30 points and upped the Knicks’ lead to 14, and exited the game with 9:03 left to loud applause.
The only one who was not a part of the celebratory atmosphere was Randle, who seemed lost. Midway through the fourth quarter, when Immanuel Quickley found him cutting alone to the rim, he continued the drive, and rather than go up against Drew Eubanks, he tried to force a pass out and turned the ball over.
Even with the big lead the crowd began chanting for Toppin, and when Randle committed a foul, he headed straight to the end of the bench while Toppin checked in.