Julius Randle is back on his pandemic groove.
The Knicks power forward, who earned his first and only All-Star appearance while playing in empty arenas during that shortened 2020-21 season, dropped 33 points Friday — giving him 67 for the last two games (and an average of 27.2 points in the last six) — as the Knicks pummeled the injury-riddled Hornets, 121-102.
“He’s cooking, man,” RJ Barrett said about Randle. “He really started us off.”
Tom Thibodeau lauded Randle’s hustle, which has been up and down this season.
“He’s playing a great all-around game,” Thibodeau said. “And that sets the tone for our team.”
It was a third straight victory for the Knicks (13-13), who climbed back to .500 for the first time since Nov. 21.
The Knicks are also undefeated since Thibodeau cut his rotation to nine players, boosting the minutes of Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride while benching Derrick Rose and Cam Reddish.
New York’s defense has been the biggest beneficiary of the new rotation — especially on the perimeter — with Friday’s effort representing another strong effort at contesting 3-pointers (Charlotte shot 6-for-26 from beyond the arc).
Thibodeau credited Grimes and McBride for the defensive boost.
“They have a knack for it,” the coach said.
Barrett added 26 points. Seven Knicks scored in double digits. Jalen Brunson had 11 assists. Mitchell Robinson grabbed 13 rebounds — including six offensive. The Knicks broke open the blowout with an 18-5 run to end the third quarter, giving them an 18-point advantage and a happy ride home after the one-game road trip.
There was some good fortune again for the Knicks. They caught another team devastated by injuries. The Hornets (7-19), among the league’s most disappointing squads, were missing their best players LaMelo Ball (ankle sprain) and Gordon Hayward (shoulder fracture).
Thus far this season, they’ve missed playing the following stars because of injuries, illness or suspension: Ball (Hornets), Joel Embiid (Sixers), Nikola Jokic (Nuggets), Chris Paul (Suns), Dame Lillard (Blazers), Kyrie Irving (Nets) and Dejounte Murray (Hawks).
They won five of those seven games.
Friday was the first night without Obi Toppin, who fractured a bone in his right leg Wednesday and is likely out a month, if not longer. Thibodeau stuck with his nine-man rotation by giving minutes to Jericho Sims, who played two centers with the second unit (Hartenstein was the other).
Sims logged 12 minutes and played well enough to keep his spot.
“I like the size of Jericho and Isaiah together,” Thibodeau said. “Everybody played well.”
Thibodeau again resisted playing Reddish, who recorded his third straight DNP. As the Daily News reported, the Knicks and Reddish’s representatives are working toward a trade.
The Lakers are rumored to have interest, although the trade season usually doesn’t kick off until mid-December when players signed in the summer are eligible for a deal.