WASHINGTON — Julius Randle spent his break embracing all that the NBA had to offer at All-Star Weekend while most of the league’s talent headed for tropical locales. But as the Knicks returned to action Friday night, there was no one who looked fresher than Randle.
Late in the second quarter, with the Knicks appearing lifeless, he darted through the lane for an emphatic dunk. Then, rather than taunt the opposition, he screamed in the direction of the Knicks’ bench, imploring his teammates to come along with him.
Randle almost single-handedly brought them back from a 19-point hole, matching his career high with 46 points and playing with a fire that turned the game around as the Knicks beat the Wizards, 115-109, for their fourth straight win.
Randle shot 16-for-29 from the field and was 7-for-14 on three-pointers. “Just came out aggressive,” he said. “That time of the year. Just gotta lock in. Just lost in the game, man, so whatever the team needs, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
“Beautiful. The way he played, really, he’s the reason we won,” Jalen Brunson said. “He kept us in it. That’s just Julius being Julius. Happy he did it today.
“When you see the ball going in every time you shoot the ball, the aggression just continues to grow. He kept staying aggressive. Even when he missed a couple, he kept going and going. I think he kind of knew he needed to do that tonight. I’m happy he did.”
With the score tied at 109 and a minute left, Brunson penetrated into the lane and found himself surrounded by 7-3 Kristaps Porzingis and 6-9 Deni Avdija. Brunson spun until he found an opening and flipped in a shot over their outstretched arms to give the Knicks the lead with 42.1 seconds left.
“KP, I used to do that to him in practice all the time,” Brunson said with a smile, recalling their days in Dallas together. “I don’t panic when I pick the ball up and I’m pivoting, trying to stay as comfortable as possible. I saw a little opening and knew I had to get it over the top of KP and I saw one finally go in the basket. It came in a timely moment.”
After Porzingis misfired from the corner, the Wizards opted not to foul and the double-teamed Randle found Mitchell Robinson — just returned from a 14-game absence with a fractured right thumb — for a dunk with 11.2 seconds left to put the Knicks up by four. Robinson had 10 points and 12 rebounds in 28 minutes in his return.
Randle put the Knicks in front 102-100 with a step-back three-pointer in front of the Wizards’ bench and followed it with another three from the same spot on the next possession.
Porzingis finished with 23 points for Washington but was limited to four points and no field goals after the first quarter.
Porzingis scored 19 points and shot 5-for-5 from beyond the arc and 4-for-4 from the free-throw line in the first quarter. His three-pointers were alarmingly wide open as the Knicks failed to handle the pick-and-roll offense of the Wizards.
Randle seemed to take over from there, offensively and defensively. He took on the assignment of defending Porzingis, didn’t allow him to score in the second quarter and didn’t even allow a field-goal attempt from him. And offensively, Randle went on the attack, scoring 11 of his 25 first-half points in the final 2:30 of the quarter. What he found was that he could blow by Porzingis and repeatedly did, driving hard to the rim, including one emphatic dunk that had the huge contingent of Knicks fans out of their seats — along with most of the bench.
The Knicks turned a 57-38 deficit into a 68-64 lead, outscoring the Wizards 30-7. They concluded that run with 18 straight points (12 by Randle) in a span of 3:07 to erase a 64-50 deficit.
With the Cavaliers, Nets and Heat losing, the Knicks (34-27) are three games out of fourth place, one game out of fifth and 1 1⁄2 games ahead of seventh in the Eastern Conference.
“You don’t want to change your approach, so you start your season with this is how we’re gonna approach each and every game,” coach Tom Thibodeau said beforehand. “And the All-Star break . . . it’s three-quarters of the way through the season. I think you can sense the urgency in the players. They know what’s at stake, and every game is important.
“There’s a lot of head-to-head now. In conference, in division, that sort of thing. So I think it’s added importance to each one of those games. But the urgency, the big thing is don’t short-cut anything. If you short-cut your process of getting ready to play, it’ll be reflected in performance. So all the little things do matter.”