PHOENIX — When the Knicks lost in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Julius Randle calmly sat for a postgame interview and talked about a need for the team to show fight. He said the Knicks just needed a win to right what has seemed like a sinking ship.
But the fight he was talking about was effort and a defensive mindset, not what he put on display Friday night in an ill-timed tantrum.
With the Knicks ahead by 10 in the third quarter and Randle playing well, he started a scuffle with Phoenix’s Cam Johnson and was ejected.
The Knicks subsequently took a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but Johnson wound up banking in a straightaway three-pointer from 30 feet at the buzzer as the Suns handed the Knicks a stunning 115-114 loss.
Johnson scored 21 of his career-high 38 points in the fourth quarter as the Knicks (25-38) suffered their seventh straight loss and 17th in the last 20 games. He did his damage in 28:13 off the bench, shooting 9-for-12 from three-point range. He shot 6-for-7 from outside the arc in the fourth quarter.
Randle scored 25 points in 28:08 in less than three quarters, and the game again demonstrated how much the Knicks need him.
"You want your team to understand why you win or lose,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. "It’s an emotional game, but you can’t cross over that line. 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.’’
The Knicks went up 95-81 early in the fourth quarter, but Johnson’s three-pointer tied it at 104 with 3:13 to play. Mitchell Robinson’s follow dunk and Immanuel Quickley’s three-pointer gave the Knicks a 109-104 lead with 2:12 left.
After three-pointers by Johnson and Jae Crowder gave the Suns a 112-111 lead, Robinson tipped in a missed shot by RJ Barrett with 15.6 seconds left to put the Knicks ahead 113-112. The Suns’ Cam Payne missed a driving layup and Alec Burks hit the first of two free throws with 7.1 seconds left to give the Knicks a two-point lead. He missed the second, though, setting the stage for Johnson.
Barrett scored 20 points despite shooting 6-for-26. Robinson had 17 points and 15 rebounds. Mikal Bridges scored 20 points and Payne had 17 points and 16 assists for the Suns (51-12).
"Mental toughness,’’ Thibodeau said. "When you face adversity, being mentally tough is the most important thing to be in any situation. We can’t hang our heads, we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got to get out there and fight. That’s what this is about right now. This is about our fight, our will, determination, togetherness, our spirit, all of that. We’ve got to make it happen.’’
The play in which Randle was ejected began with little hint of trouble. A shot went up and Randle and Johnson came together while jockeying for position under the rim. After Johnson pushed Randle in the back, Randle turned and went right at him, with the two going nose-to-nose. When referee Dedric Taylor got between them, Randle reached past Taylor and shoved Johnson hard as both teams rushed into the fray. But Randle was still hot, shoving Burks away as he tried to get him calmed down.
After a review, the officials assessed double technicals to Randle and Johnson and then a second technical to Randle, resulting in an ejection with 2:40 left in the third quarter.
The Knicks were up 86-76 at the time of the altercation. Randle had been playing with aggression from the start of the game, outplaying Crowder and even taking Deandre Ayton to the rim repeatedly and scoring.