Julius Randle’s Knicks slump has come at the worst time

Julius Randle has developed into everything the Knicks could have envisioned this season and more, a legitimate All-Star forward and an unquestioned team leader helping to vault them into position to possibly reach the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2013.

But the Knicks’ current 1-5 slide also has coincided with Randle’s first extended shooting slump of the season since he returned from a one-game absence March 27 in Milwaukee with a contused right thigh.

Randle insisted again after Wednesday’s two-point loss in Boston that his leg is “fine” and the injury has had “no impact on me at all.” While RJ Barrett went 6-for-6 from 3-point range and scored 29 points against the Celtics, Randle was 2-for-6 from long distance and 9-for-23 overall.

Randle is shooting 40.4 percent from the floor over his last seven games and just 31.1 percent (14-for-45) from beyond the arc after connecting on a career-best 42.8 percent on 3-point attempts in his first 44 appearances. He did have a strong shooting night in Saturday’s win in Detroit with five 3-pointers and 29 points in 30 minutes.

The Knicks (25-27) need Randle to regain the consistency in his outside stroke to help stem their current skid, with upcoming home games against Memphis (Friday) and Toronto (Sunday) this weekend. The Lakers – minus LeBron James and Anthony Davis – also are coming to town on Monday.

Sunday’s contest against the Raptors – representing a two-game sw ing in the standings — is particularly significant. Toronto entered Thursday’s game against Chicago as the 11th seed in the East, 4 ½ games behind the No. 8 Knicks.

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Toronto guard Fred VanVleet missed his third straight game Thursday with a hip injury, and the league announced he’s been suspended for one game once he’s healthy for his role in an on-court altercation in Tuesday’s game against the Lakers.

The top six teams in each conference automatically will reach the postseason, while teams seven through 10 must qualify via play-in game scenarios.

Knicks Julius Randle
Knicks forward Julius Randle against the Celtics on April 7, 2021.
AP

“We’re comfortable, but not that comfortable,” veteran guard Derrick Rose said Wednesday. “A two- or three-game slip could end up getting [us] out of the playoffs.

“We’re cautious about that, what we have to do, the urgency that we have to play with every night and just try to play our game, play with a faster pace and just play together and we’ll find ourselves there. But we’re watching the standings.”

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In the tight Eastern Conference, of course, Tom Thibodeau’s team also entered Thursday’s action just two games out of the fourth playoff position.

One recurring issue the Knicks have to rectify is their repeated inability to close out close games. Including the loss in Boston, they are 2-8 this season in games decided by three points or fewer, also featuring recent heartbreakers against the 76ers (twice), the Nets and even the NBA-worst Timberwolves.

Barrett admitted after Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics that the trend is “frustrating and annoying,” but Randle countered that the Knicks don’t have time for such thinking.

The 26-year-old Randle remains second in the NBA this season with 37.0 minutes per game, a smidge behind Nets guard James Harden (37.1).

“We’re fine. Not too frustrated,” Randle insisted after Wednesday’s game. “We’re not going to get too much out of frustration. We have to find out what the problem is and figure it out.”

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