PHOENIX — Julius Randle said the other night the Knicks’ season is far from over and for almost three quarters Friday night, he made sure of it.
Then, the enigmatic side of Randle reared its ugly head and he was ejected with 2:40 left in the third quarter, with the Knicks up by 10 points, after a dustup with Suns forward Cam Johnson.
Without Randle, the Knicks couldn’t hold the lead at a wild Footprint Center. Johnson led the Suns to a miracle finish, capping a brilliant fourth quarter by banking in a 35-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer to hand the Knicks another heartbreaking, easily avoidable loss, 115-114.
With Randle in the showers, Johnson scored 20 of his 38 points in the fourth quarter to lead the comeback win.
The Suns took the lead with 30 seconds left, but Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (17 points, 15 rebounds, 8-for-8 from the field) scored on a tip-in with 15 seconds left, giving the Knicks the 113-112 lead and apparently making himself the hero. Alec Burks was fouled after grabbing a rebound with 7.1 seconds left and made one of two foul shots to make it 114-112 before Johnson’s game-winning 3-pointer.
The crushing loss was the Knicks’ seventh straight.
Randle had been a firebrand all evening, but then lost his temper. Randle morphed into his supercharged mode — the same frenetic form as when he made his infamous “thumbs-down” gesture to fans earlier this season.
Johnson tried boxing Randle out and the Knicks veteran elbowed him away as they battled for a rebound. Johnson then shoved Randle in the back before Randle turned to the Suns youngster, started jawing and shoved him as the referee was getting in between them.
Players from both sides started grabbing each other, and the fracas resulted in two technical fouls levied against Randle, for an automatic ejection following a referee review. Johnson got one technical. After the skirmish, Evan Fournier high-fived Randle, not realizing his teammate was about to be tossed.
The Knicks were up 86-76 with all the momentum before the incident, with 2:40 left in the third quarter. They still carried a 93-81 lead into the fourth quarter. Randle’s backup, Obi Toppin, was already out due to a hamstring injury. Cam Reddish came in to play power forward and initially helped keep the lead.
Randle finished with 25 points in 28 minutes, going 9-for-18 and hitting all six of his free throws. He also had seven rebounds and four assists.
It has been an angry season for Randle, who has battled referees, the fans and assistant coaches, and who hasn’t been the leader he needed to be as the Knicks’ returning All-Star.
Coach Tom Thibodeau felt the Knicks were close to a breakthrough entering the contest. He pointed out that despite three straight losses out of the All-Star Break — two to Philadelphia and one to Miami — the club had played well enough to be in all three games midway through the fourth quarter.
“There’s a lot of good things that we’ve done but we have to get over the hump,” Thibodeau said.
Mikal Bridges, who seems to take a special relish playing well against the Knicks for passing him in the 2018 draft for Kevin Knox, drilled them for 17 first-half points. He shot 3-for-4 from 3-point range and threw down a vicious lefty dunk late in the half, putting the Suns up 52-46 and forcing Thibodeau into a timeout.
Randle was in attack mode all half, finishing with 20 points at intermission, shooting 7-for-14, while RJ Barrett was off (2-for-9). Barrett finished 6-for-24 from the field for 20 points.
After praising rookie point guard Miles McBride extensively at the morning shootaround, Thibodeau finally gave the fan favorite a look in the first half. McBride entered with 1:02 left in the first quarter and played a five-minute stint. He picked up two fouls and contributed to a 3-point play by Aaron Holiday, who drove past him for a layup.
McBride didn’t get many touches on the offense because Immanuel Quickley played the point and McBride was off the ball. As a result, McBride didn’t take a shot with Quickley hogging the action.
“Yeah, just keep doing what he’s doing,” Thibodeau said before the game. “I love Miles. He’s come in early. He works incredibly hard. He’s competitive. He’s done a great job down in the G-League. The times that he’s been out there, he’s done a good job. Just stay ready. His time will come.”
In the second quarter, the Knicks had an all-youth quintet of McBride, Quickley, Barrett, Reddish and Jericho Sims.