Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson lead the way for Knicks over Raptors

Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson lead the way for Knicks over Raptors

Updated: 23 days, 17 hours, 25 minutes, 1 second ago

TORONTO — Friday was a strange anniversary, a year to the day since Julius Randle infamously flashed a thumbs-down gesture to the Madison Square Garden crowd. That was a low point in a frustrating and troubling season for a player who had been an All-Star, the NBA’s Most Improved Player and a second-team All-NBA selection a season earlier.

Lost in the NBA-fined actions that day, which included a profane explanation of the message for the home fans, was that Randle actually played with a fire that day. And this season, minus the dysfunction, Randle is playing with a fire that again has him in consideration for a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.

North of the border, Randle’s efforts Friday were met mostly with disappointed groans by the crowd at Scotiabank Arena rather than the MVP chants that have served as a soundtrack of late at Madison Square Garden. But the effect was the same, leading the Knicks to their fourth straight win, 112-108, over the Raptors.

Randle had a game-high 32 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, his fifth effort of at least 30 points in the last nine games. And what has become an almost every-night occurrence is that Randle gets the Knicks' offense started with a productive first quarter. He connected on five three-point field goals in the first quarter and finished the period with 19 points.

But predictably, this wasn’t going to be easy as the Knicks saw a 17-point first-half lead cut to one in the third quarter before Randle hit his first three-pointer since the first quarter to provide a bit of breathing room, 76-72. The Raptors kept coming and with the lead down to two and 5.4 seconds left in the third, Fred VanVleet went to the line and hit the first but missed the second. The Raptors then fouled Immanuel Quickley with 0.4 seconds left and the Knicks managed to take an 81-78 lead into the fourth quarter.

The Knicks then scored the first eight points of the fourth quarter to push the lead back to double-digits and built the lead back to as much as 16 points. But leading 105-89, the Knicks tried to milk the clock and Toronto's full-court press disrupted the action and the Raptors pulled within 107-103 on a Pascal Siakam three with 49 seconds remaining. After a timeout, Randle went to the line with 48.1 seconds left and made one of two. Gary Trent Jr. hit a three with 41.6 seconds left and the lead was down to two again.

Jalen Brunson, who had 26 points and eight assists, came to the rescue, knifing through traffic and banking in a five-footer and drawing a foul for a three-point play and a 111-106 lead with 22.8 seconds to play. Trent Jr. scored again but Brunson went to the line with 13.4 seconds remaining and made one for a four-point lead.

Still, when the first round of All-Star fan voting was released Thursday, Randle was nowhere to be found among the top 10 front-court players. Brunson also was absent from the list, along with every other Knicks player other than little-used Derrick Rose, who was ninth among guards.

“To me, the All-Star Game is for the fans,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I have no problem with that. There’s a number of guys that are deserving and will get consideration. I think the tough part about All-Star Games is because the fans will have impact on the starters, and rightly so, there’s a limited number of spots after that. There are more players that are deserving that are having big years.

“Hopefully our players will get some consideration. Certainly Julius, Jalen and RJ [Barrett]. I know when the coaches vote, you’re looking at what’s the impact. What ends up happening, the players at the end, it’s tough to decide. You don’t want to be the deciding vote that keeps someone out that’s deserving. So usually what you go to is what’s the impact been on winning. I think that’s usually the tiebreaker for most coaches. It’s the unfortunate part because there are a number of guys that are having big years. Hopefully our guys will get consideration.”

Randle was averaging 24.2 points and 10.0 rebounds, both team highs, entering Friday’s game against Toronto. He put up huge numbers in December, averaging 28.3 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 15 games. He shot 36.8% from three-point range on 9.1 attempts per game and also averaged 8.6 free throws attempted.

“The way he’s playing is just unheard of,” Brunson said. “He’s playing with confidence and he’s having fun. So it’s really awesome to see how he’s been able to kind of bounce back. I think he still has a lot more to prove, not just to everyone else but to himself because he has a whole ’nother level he can reach.”

“You work hard to put yourself in a position to do that,” Randle said earlier this week. “So it would be amazing. I love it. Not necessarily for me, it’s great. But I love it to experience it with my family, with both of my sons. My wife. Because they’re the ones who make the true sacrifice of letting me dedicate myself to the game . . . Summers and night in, night out . . . But for me, whatever the team needs, honestly.”