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Julius Randle was back from COVID-19 protocols and RJ Barrett was back to being an efficient force.
That Batman and Robin tandem of a season ago exploded on the undermanned Pacers as they combined for 62 points in a 104-94 victory Tuesday at the Garden.
It was the 30-30 club and felt like retro night from the 2020-21 campaign.
Barrett scored 32 points — 24 in the first half — while Randle punished the Pacers all night with his physicality, going 12-for-20 and racking up 30 points. He also had 16 rebounds.
Barrett was 12 of 20 from the field and hit six of his eight free throws. The pair hit just two 3-pointers each, showing a relentless spirit in attacking the basket.
“The big thing is for RJ, it was incredible for him to start the game,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “With both guys, it’s them attacking the rim. The game will tell you what to do. If we settle for shots, it’s going to cause problems. If we’re attacking the rim, it makes us different.”
The Knicks were 0-2 when Randle was out with COVID-19 after taking a lot of heat in the media and on social media that he wasn’t living up to his superstar form of a season ago.
Interestingly, Randle did not talk to the media after the game. He had treatment and left in a sign he could be ticked off at the recent negative coverage.
“For Julius to do what he did today was just remarkable — to come off safety protocols, travel, get here and play,’’ Thibodeau said. “We had no idea what he’d be like. Unbelievable effort. Unbelievable all the things he did … physicality was huge for us. His rebounding was the difference in the game.’’
Randle isolated in Oklahoma, then was permitted to drive to Dallas, his hometown, before flying in Monday after testing negative. He spent New Year’s Eve at home.
Thibodeau said he was unsure if Randle would play Tuesday until a very late-night call from him on Monday.
“I had no idea,’’ Thibodeau said. “Then I talked to [him] last night, he told me how great he felt. I’m like ‘OK, that’s good news.’ It came at a good time. We were working on how we were going to match up with them. A late-night call. One of the best late-night calls I ever had.”
In a sign of the distorted times, even as Randle was rolling in the second half, the fans chanted Barrett’s name when Randle, their lone All-Star, stepped to the free-throw line. Last season they chanted “MVP’’ anytime Randle shot free throws.
Barrett heard chants much of the evening as the Knicks (18-20) were able to survive a scoreless night from free-agent signee Evan Fournier as he missed all four of his shots in 22 minutes.
“It’s cool,’’ Barrett said. “Definitely in the Garden, hearing the Garden chanting your name is a lot of fun.’’
Obi Toppin, whom many fans wish would cut into Randle’s minutes, scored two points in nine minutes after starting the past two games at power forward.
Barrett erupted for 17 points in the game’s first seven minutes and had 24 by halftime. Despite his relentless attacks on the basket and fancy, spinning finishes, the Knicks couldn’t even come out of the first half with the lead.
“I was just trying to be aggressive,’’ Barrett said. “When you get in the paint, you either finish or kick out if the defense collapses.’’
Barrett credited Randle for his rebounding “and the intensity he had. He’s always ready.’’
It was hardly an easy win, though. Sparked by their emergency starting guard Kiefer Sykes and his 16 points, the Pacers were even with the Knicks at 55-55 at intermission. The Knicks no longer have any players in COVID protocols. The Pacers have eight.
Undrafted in 2015, Sykes had 12 points in his NBA career in just three previous games. His anonymous career has been spent in the G-League, Turkey, Italy and Australia.
And Sykes became a sterling shotmaker, drilling 4 of 8 3-pointers and finishing with 20 points.
In the revolving door at point guard, Thibodeau started Alec Burks instead of rookie Miles McBride who had started the previous two.
With Randle back, Barrett took ownership of the game, driving relentlessly, drawing fouls and also hitting his first two 3-pointers.
Throwing in all his moves, Barrett finished 8 of 12 and made 6 of 7 free throws in his best half of his young career as the Knicks went on a 16-0 run to erase an 18-10 deficit.
Barrett had a big second season but has regressed in Year 3. But this could be the start of something for both players.