The Knicks hadn’t won there in 16 years. SIX-TEEN YEARS.
They were trailing by 10 with 7 1/2 minutes remaining, and you could sense the thin air of Mile High City leaving New York’s balloon.
Then something happened that we haven’t witnessed much, if at all, in the last year.
Julius Randle strapped on his cape.
It was encouraging or perhaps fitting, that Randle got it started with defense. He crowded the dribble space of Denver’s Zeke Nnaji and forced a turnover.
After unselfishly passing back to the trailer on a fastbreak, Randle finished the sequence with an offensive rebound and a putback.
They are all extra-energy plays from a player whose effort had been called into question. It jumpstarted a 17-2 Knicks run that buried the Nuggets late Wednesday night.
Randle finished with 34 points, 11 rebounds and four steals.
“Julius Randle. Julius Randle,” Jalen Brunson told reporters who asked for the key to the comeback. “And, um, [scans the boxscore] Julius Randle.”.”
You are welcome to attach an asterisk to the victory since Nikola Jokic, the Polar Bear Express and two-time defending MVP, entered health protocols and wasn’t available for the Nuggets. But it was impressive nonetheless to win in Denver, the place of 14 consecutive Knicks defeats before Tuesday and often a high-altitude nightmare for visitors.
In back-to-back nights, the Knicks handed the Jazz and Nuggets their first home losses of the season.
Not bad. The stuff of character. Beyond that ugly team history in Denver, the Knicks had to overcome RJ Barrett’s 14 missed shots on 18 attempts and a virus that infiltrated the locker room.
“We all got it,” Randle told reporters. “I’m happy we got a win. Always going to make you feel better.”
Even if they’re not sustained, the efforts reflected positively on Tom Thibodeau, who started this road trip with the temperature rising on his coaching seat. Players tend to give up on coaches they don’t want to stick around. Instead, they gathered for a players-only dinner/meeting — which was organized by Randle — and produced the two best wins of their season.
If that’s not a testament to their belief in the coach, at the very least it’s a show of pride from the Knicks. We were forced to question such things after they gave up 145 points on Sunday to the OKC Thunder.
Randle is a polarizing figure for a variety of reasons, but the passionate fan feelings can best be summarized as such: Randle’s not the level of star to carry the Knicks to contention, but he’s the team’s best player and, as a result, often has the ball in isolations.
He’s judged against the player he’s not, rather than the player he’s proven to be. Randle’s also not a homegrown draft pick like Barrett or Obi Toppin, which seems to carry weight with fan appreciation. Knicks supporters now glorify the Carmelo Anthony experience but sentiments about his game were similar.
Which is to say there are nights like Wednesday when Randle can strap on the cape, when he can physically dominate and carry the Knicks to victories. We saw a bunch of that during the pandemic season, and not enough in the last year.
In Denver, we saw it at a very important time. This five-game road trip, which continues Friday against the struggling Warriors, was considered so daunting that it could send the Knicks spiraling into a coaching change.
It’s probably hyperbole to suggest two victories saved a season, but starting 2-0 on the trip feels more significant than the record suggests. And a curse in Denver was finally lifted.
Randle deserves all the kudos.