NEW YORK — It was the same old story for the Knicks Thursday night:
The starters were brutal, and it took the bench to make it a game.
Julius Randle, Kemba Walker and company ran up a deficit that got to 24 points early in the fourth quarter. A lineup of Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin and Quentin Grimes turned in a spirited performance to cut the lead to 10 twice, but it was too little too late in a 102-91 loss to the Pelicans.
The defeat, the third straight at Madison Square Garden, dropped the Knicks to 22-24 and 11th in the East, a game outside of the final play-in tournament spot.
There was plenty for Knicks fans to boo on Thursday night, and the paying customers used their license to take their lungs out for a spin.
There was the home team’s dreadful shooting and spotty defense.
There was the officiating, which added insult to injury in the first half by hitting the Knicks with technicals on Walker and Randle after missing obvious foul calls, although the Knicks did take 36 free throws to the Pelicans’ 22.
And yes, there was Randle, whose confidence is somewhere south of the toilet, maybe in the sewers of Midtown.
Randle (four points on 1-of-9 shooting) tried to get going early, missing three aggressive shots in the opening minutes. He immediately downshifted to passing, screening and defense from there. He finished with four points, one made field goal, three turnovers and one play that Clyde Frazier memorably said was “reminiscent of the old butt trick from the Jets.”
Frazier was referring to Mark Sanchez’s infamous play. Randle smacking into Evan Fournier while trying to screen for him had the same result as the butt fumble: The other team scooped up a loose ball for an easy score.
It seemed like Randle had hit rock bottom last Monday, when he was booed off the court after a two-point dud against the Spurs. Since then, he had averaged 20 points in a four-game stretch against the Hawks, Mavericks, Hornets and Timberwolves.
Instead, his demons returned Thursday night. He was booed after several particularly bad turnovers, although the fans’ performance was equally unimpressive, chanting “OBI TOPPIN” for Randle’s backup while RJ Barrett was at the line shooting free throws in what was then a 24-point blowout. (Their loudest cheers, easily, came when a trio exchanged smooches in a three-way trade on the kiss cam.)
Randle stunk, but he was far from alone. The offense came out bricking and hovered between stale and incompetent the rest of the night, with only Barrett (17 points) remotely capable of generating his own among the starters. The team ended the night 9 for 38 from 3-point range, and it was worse than it looked, with Quickley, Grimes and Burks pouring in seven of those, mostly late.
It all came undone in a 35-15 third quarter that turned the game into a laugher, as Brandon Ingram and Devonte’ Graham had their way with a suddenly pliant New York defense.
Mitchell Robinson did add 17 points, to go along with 15 rebounds, on the usual array of layups and dunks that he so firmly believes he can expand beyond. But for now, Robinson gets alley-oops and put-backs, and after going 6-of-7 on Thursday night, he’s shooting 78.8% on the season.