If Julius Randle keeps this up, he is going to have a hard time buying a drink around New York City for the rest of his natural life. When he is old and gray, Randle will still be the toast of the town for taking the Knicks’ money when the big names didn’t want it, for starting their drive back to relevance and for making the team’s first championship since 1973 feel like a realistic goal.
Oh, and for easing the sting of the Kristaps Porzingis trade, if not making the sting completely go away.
The Knicks’ 2019 trade of Porzingis to the Mavericks was not exactly the Mets’ 1977 trade of Tom Seaver to the Reds, but it hurt all the same. The main Maverick coming New York’s way, Dennis Smith Jr., was a disaster, and DeAndre Jordan, the man who was supposed to help lure Olympic teammates and friends Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the Garden, ended up joining them in Brooklyn instead.
Out of desperation, the Knicks had to spend some of that salary-cap money the trade freed up. Randle raised his hand. Friday night in Dallas, with Porzingis on the opposing front line, all Randle did was deliver 44 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists, leading his team to its fifth straight victory and improving the Knicks’ chances to avoid the very postseason place the Mavericks appear to be heading toward — the dreaded play-in tournament.
In his Dallas homecoming, Randle became the first Knick since Bernard King in 1985 to end up with at least 40 points, 10 boards, and five assists in a single game. He was 16-for-29 from the floor, 6-for-11 from 3-point range, and nearly doubled Porzingis’s point total (23).
“When he added the 3-point shot,” coach Tom Thibodeau said of Randle after his team’s 117-109 victory, “that just opened up everything else.”
Including the possibility that Randle, only eight months older than Porzingis, might just outperform him over the next three or four years. It would be a tall order to play above the 7-foot-3 Latvian, and one quick look at Porzingis’s final on-court act as a Knick explains why.
That February night in 2018 at the Garden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s most athletic player, was holding Porzingis’s jersey like a middle-aged weekend warrior would at the local Y. Trey Burke was screening the Bucks’ franchise player at the left elbow, and KP was freeing himself from the defender above the foul line, preparing to take a pass from Kyle O’Quinn. But when the Bucks’ Jason Terry jumped into the passing lane, the Unicorn did a very Unicorn-ish thing: He stopped on a dime like a wide receiver coming out of a break, split Terry and Antetokounmpo on a hard dive to the basket, and took Quinn’s bounce pass into the air for a high-flying, posterizing dunk over the Greek Freak while camera lights flashed around them.
Yet much like the most recent spurts of Knicks prosperity — Linsanity in 2012, Melo’s 54-win season the following year — this one ended far too quickly. In fact, it lasted about two seconds after that dunk over Antetokounmpo before a fallen Porzingis reached for his left knee and started pounding the floor. The fans couldn’t even get out of their seats before their delight ran smack into devastation. KP had a torn ACL, and nearly a year later he walked into the office of Steve Mills, and told the team president and general manager Scott Perry that he wanted out, and that if they didn’t trade him he would leave for Europe.
Randle’s play (along with the two pending first-round picks the Knicks acquired from Dallas) has made the Porzingis trade feel a lot less apocalyptic than it seemed at the time. Entering Friday night, Randle was outscoring Porzingis (23.2-20.7) and outrebounding him (10.6-9.3), though the Mavs’ star was beating the Knicks power forward in player efficiency rating (22.26-19.73).
Porzingis did victimize Randle on a poster dunk in Friday’s matchup, and it didn’t matter. The Knicks’ best player made a step-back 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds left in the third quarter that set up the huge fourth. With 4:11 to go and the Knicks holding a six-point lead, Randle made two free throws. He pushed the lead back to eight a minute later by making a runner high off the glass. With 1:44 left, he sank a fading turnaround that seemed like the clincher.
“He’s our engine,” Thibodeau said. “He makes us go.”
Randle has put together this career season through extreme offseason conditioning work, and through the confidence that came from it. When he was done dominating in his homecoming, Randle was asked what making All-NBA would mean to him.
“That would be a great accomplishment,” he said.
Just as great as making New Yorkers forget how much they hated the Kristaps Porzingis trade when it went down.