LOS ANGELES — Out of the desolate locker-room area inside Footprint Center in Phoenix late Friday night, Knicks president Leon Rose, chief adviser William Wesley and executive Allan Houston trudged gravely down the hallway with glum faces.
They had watched not just another loss, but a traumatic one against the depleted Suns, who were missing their two superstars, Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
Victory seemed in the bag for the Knicks — even despite Julius Randle’s senseless ejection with 2:40 left in the third quarter for pushing Cam Johnson, who got the last laugh. Johnson sank a miracle, banked-in, 30-foot, pull-up 3-pointer at the buzzer to cap his 21-point fourth quarter, spurred by the Randle ejection.
“It’s all right,” Wesley said aloud to no one in particular after the 115-114 loss. “We’ll get the next one.”
Then the three executives ducked into a separate room to digest this horrific defeat, perhaps even to discuss head coach Tom Thibodeau’s future. After a seventh straight defeat and a 3-17 record in their last 20 games and with Randle just not seeming right, it was hard to see the sun in the Valley of the Sun.
The Knicks, who are 13 games below .500 at 25-38, will get that chance Sunday night versus the Clippers — a game that was scrapped from the national television lineup due mainly to the Knicks’ midseason collapse.
Thibodeau, who has spent the season trying not to criticize Randle, finally showed some disapproval, toward the end of his press conference Friday: “You can’t cross over that line. You’ve got to know where to stop.”
Randle was rolling toward what R.J. Barrett thought would be “a 40-point game” when he freaked out, turned to Johnson after they bumped for a position on a rebound and shoved him hard while making contact with a referee who was trying to intercede. Randle was assessed two technicals and an early exit, leaving with 25 points and sparking Johnson into a heroic final period.
“We have to have the mental toughness to get through this,” Thibodeau said. Mental toughness. When you face adversity, being mentally tough is the most important thing to be in any situation. We can’t hang our heads, we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got to get out there and fight. That’s what this is about right now. This is about our fight, our will, determination, togetherness, our spirit, all of that. We’ve got to make it happen.”
Randle was not made available for comment afterward. Barrett and Alec Burks, the two players made available, said they didn’t talk to Randle. Neither did Thibodeau.
“We definitely 100 percent should’ve won the game,” Barrett said.
Randle’s overall psyche is of concern inside the Knicks organization, according to an NBA source.
The source said Randle didn’t come into training camp in the same type of sensational shape as he did last season, before Thibodeau’s first year guiding the Knicks. Perhaps that prevented him from being the type of two-way player — giving energy on both sides of the ball — that he was during his second team All-NBA season.
Randle has seemed angry all year, battling with fans through his “thumbs-down” gesture, battling with referees, battling with assistant coaches, battling with Johnson when the Knicks had all the momentum and were on the verge of snapping their six-game slide.
He has been a mystery wrapped in a riddle. Some might suggest he’s jealous of Barrett’s rising stardom. The last six road games, Randle hasn’t participated in the starting lineup introductions, preferring to stay in the back to warm up. By doing so, Randle misses out on the traditional group huddle after the lineups are called. (He participates during home games).
Evan Fournier and Randle have talked about a group lacking confidence to pull out games in the fourth quarter.
“The confidence is gonna come from your preparation,” Thibodeau said late Friday. “That’s where confidence comes from and confidence can wane. If you have a run of shot-making in the fourth, it’ll give you confidence.”
Thibodeau made the argument the Knicks are averaging the same number of points as they are giving up in the fourth. It’s just that untimely errors and free-throw shooting are a big concern. They are last in the league in free-throw percentage and were hurt by Burks’ miss from the line with 5.9 seconds left that set up Johnson’s killer tree in transition.
Thibodeau noted the Knicks should’ve gotten that loose-ball rebound. He admitted “the hustle plays” no longer go their way.
“The ball got batted around, hit 3, 4 different people,” Thibodeau said. “They come up with it and bank in a 3 for the win. We’ve got to come up with that ball.”
Thibodeau was asked if he’s concerned about Randle’s well-being.
“I’m concerned about everything,” Thibodeau said.