It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the Knicks, who haven’t had a legit 1-2 punch, a Butch and Sundance, in too many years to remember. For a few years there was hope that Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony might become that — never happened. As good as the ’90s-era Knicks were Patrick Ewing went through a revolving-door of would-be wingmen.
It figured their fans would spend the winter craning their necks enviously across the East River, at the 1-2 combo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving that soon became a 1-2-3 trifecta when James Harden arrived. And look: the Nets are still the fancy showpiece team around here, even if only one or two of their Terrific Troika are available at any given time.
But here the Knicks are, a game shy of the midway point of the season, a game above .500 after a workaday 109-90 thrashing of the Pistons on Sunday to back up the thrilling 110-107 win over Indiana on Saturday.
They finish February 9-5, their first winning month in four years, they are (not a typo) alone in fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings. As they did a year ago they won an 18th game on the last day of February — but last February had one extra day and last season had 25 extra games by now — all losses.
And they have their own Butch and Sundance now, too.
They have Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, a pair of left-handers who entered this season wearing a uniform that looked less like the Knicks’ traditional orange-and-blue (or whatever nightly variation they go with) than the old one worn by the Riddler, covered head to toe in question marks.
They were both enigmas: Randle, always capable of filling up a scorebook, and Barrett, almost never able to see his name in sentences as a rookie that didn’t also include the names “Zion Williamson” and “Ja Morant.” Both could make you shake your head some nights with their skill and obvious ceiling; both could make you shake your head and switch the channel. That was then, anyway.
Now, they are the foundation of this team, and they ought to be the centerpiece of whatever they will become, the primary attraction for whatever supporting characters Leon Rose can attract in the coming weeks, months, years.
It’s odd, too: Randle may well be in the conversation for the most improved player in the league. And simultaneously, Barrett is almost certainly the most improved player on the team. Together they have given the Knicks something beyond hope and faith, given their fans something for which to be grateful beyond the nightly grit, guile and sweat equity:
Skill. Talent. And genuine upside.
“On the first unit they’ve found some chemistry together,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “They’re reading the game well, playing the game unselfishly. They’re tied together at both ends of the floor. The way they’re playing is very, very good.”
The weekend two-step underlined where they’ve already come, where they can still go together. Saturday Randle scored 28 points and Barrett 24, they combined for 17 rebounds, they made every clutch shot from the field down the stretch. Sunday, business end of a back-to-back, Randle scored 25, Barrett 21, they combined to shoot 18-for-31 from the field (and 5-for-10 from 3).
Randle is already an All-Star. Barrett seems determined to follow Randle’s every step, both of them subjugating their own games for the greater good, and what’s most tantalizing is this: Randle is only 26. Barrett is but 20. This should only be the very beginning of a most intriguing partnership.
Butch and Sundance. Desus and Mero.
Julius and RJ.
“It’s just us trying to play our game, letting the game come easy to us,” said Randle. “I just let RJ do his thing, I play off him and make it an easy game as a result.”
The results are tangible. A year ago Randle averaged 20 and nine, and still heard Garden boos because the Knicks were awful and the stats empty. Knicks fans showed more patience with Barrett — it’s poor form to boo teenagers — and Barrett wasn’t only overshadowed by the two players picked before him in the draft but by several others who came after.
Both sought individual transformation, Randle via a punishing offseason regimen, Barrett motivated by being left off every rookie team. This season, these first 35 games, are a result. Butch and Sundance might enjoy the reaction of a lot of folks who maybe haven’t seen them play in a bit:
“Who are these guys?”