Knicks can’t hold lead against Bulls in second leg of back-to-back

By Stefan Bondy

Julius Randle got no help on his big night in Chicago and the struggling Knicks folded down the stretch.

Randle finished with an efficient 34 points in a revitalized performance, but New York’s defense failed to contain the clearly more talented Bulls in a 109-103 loss Sunday.

DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine combined for 52 points, and the Bulls (12-5) dominated the final five minutes. Other than Randle, no starter scored more than nine points for the Knicks (9-8). RJ Barrett missed 10 of his 12 shots; Evan Fournier contributed a pitiful three points and spent half the game on the bench; Kemba Walker had a nice third quarter but was also benched for the entire fourth quarter.

It became a stark contrast in the success of Chicago’s offseason signings (DeRozan and Lonzo Ball), and the underwhelming play of Leon Rose’s 2021 summer additions (Walker and Fournier).

The game kicked off a three-week stretch of difficult opponents for the Knicks, although Tuesday’s home matchup against the Lakers could be much easier if LeBron James is suspended for socking Detroit’s Isaiah Stewart in the face in their game Sunday.

Sunday finished New York’s second set of back-back games, and Walker played this one after resting earlier this month in Philadelphia.

Walker has assured he’s dictating his rest days for knee maintenance purposes, rather than the team or medical staff setting a schedule like last season with the Celtics.

“Nothing is set in stone for back-to-backs,” Thibodeau reiterated Sunday. “It’s just communication with medical people. Kemba has a lot of say in it. I trust him. He feels comfortable. And he’s done a great job taking care of his body.’’

Walker finished with seven points and only played 18 minutes.

The center situation was as dire as ever. Mitchell Robinson (concussion) and Taj Gibson (groin) were both ruled out. Starter Nerlens Noel picked up four fouls in the first half and Thibodeau used Randle at the 5. The circumstances also forced into action rookie Jericho Sims, who hadn’t played in two weeks and logged four minutes Sunday.

The maligned starting lineup struggled from tipoff — falling to a 20-8 deficit after six minutes — but recovered in the third quarter behind Randle and Walker to give New York a lead heading into the final period.

Then the bench couldn’t help Randle bring it home.

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