New York Knicks forward Julius Randle reacts to referee Scott...

New York Knicks forward Julius Randle reacts to referee Scott Wall after he is called for a fifth foul against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second half at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When Julius Randle sat down for interviews after the disappointing loss to the Bulls and the uplifting win over the Lakers earlier this week, he delivered the same message — that with time the Knicks are going to figure out their issues and be the team they believe they can be.

It was a positive message sent, but more for himself and his teammates than the fans or the media.

After a breakout season in 2020-21, Randle and the revamped roster have struggled at times to find hints of the style of play that put them in the postseason last spring. And in the midst of a brutal stretch of their schedule, that optimism will be tested.

The newcomers to the starting lineup, Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, have had their moments, but too few. But whether it comes in time for Friday’s game against the Suns, the hottest team in the NBA, or somewhere down the line in this 82-game schedule, Randle believes the Knicks will be able to do what coach Tom Thibodeau preaches — play their best when the playoffs come.

"The thing about us is we’ve stayed encouraged," Randle said. "We’ve stayed positive. We’ve had highs, we’ve had lows. But once it starts clicking, we’re going to be a really, really good team. And we’re starting to take a step in the right direction.

"Like I said before, [Evan] is a huge part of our team, so I’ll make sure that we establish him and he gets comfortable, and Kemba, everybody gets comfortable to where we’re just going out there, we’re playing it, we know what’s going to happen, we know where our shots are going to come from, we know that we have each other’s back on the defensive end. That’s what makes the game fun."

Fournier delivered 26 points in the win over the Lakers, but his play remains a work in progress, with production coming in starts and stops.

"Let’s not keep talking about that," he said. "We all have a positive attitude about it. We all want to move forward, we all want to play well. We all want to win games, and I think our attitude is great right now. We’re headed in the right direction, and that’s very encouraging right now."

Thibodeau praised the play of Chris Paul in leading the Suns, who come into Madison Square Garden with a 15-3 record and 14 straight victories, and knows the challenge the Knicks are facing.

"You want to build a consistency in terms of how you prepare for each game," Thibodeau said. "And so know your opponent well, know what goes into winning. And we have to go out and execute, got to play for 48 minutes, and your margin of error is small, but we got to make sure that we go out there prepared and you have to do it as a team."

Notes & quotes: Thibodeau, speaking after Wednesday’s practice, did not sound optimistic that Mitchell Robinson will be ready to play Friday as he works through league concussion protocols. "He’s got to go through all the protocols," Thibodeau said. "He’s making progress. . . . There’s a progression to it. So he’s gone through each phase. And there’s still more for him to go through before he’s cleared." He said Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson still are day-to-day.

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