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Julius Randle maintains perfect assist as difficulties increase

The day Julius Randle took the lead for most minutes played in the NBA this season, he looked frustrated and, frankly, exhausted.

This was Saturday afternoon against the Clippers, a game highlighted by Randle’s 19 missed shots and a tantrum that first made its way to the refs and spilled onto the Knicks’ bench.

It had had this tendency for Randle since his breakout performance in a double-overtime win over the Celtics, when he sat in front of his locker on March 5 and joked that he was finally contemplating handling the charge.

But as Randle pointed out in a more serious moment earlier that day in Boston, he doesn’t believe in planned rest. The strategy, as Randle said, is akin to “fooling myself.”

So even after his three straight flops, he didn’t sit out the second straight Sunday game against the Lakers. Randle kept his perfect assist this season.

Coach Tom Thibodeau wasn’t buying fatigue as an excuse.

“If Julius needs a day off from practice, he’ll have the day off. Whatever he needs,” Thibodeau told reporters after Saturday’s loss to the Clippers. “But I also don’t think if a guy misses shots, he’s tired.”

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Thibodeau mentioned the practice break earlier in the press conference. But it’s hard to tell when Randle will take these days off since the Knicks haven’t announced a practice in more than two weeks.

“You can also give him a day off when you’re not playing. So there are a lot of different ways to give him a day off,” Thibodeau said. “The thing with Julius is that he works very hard to be able to manage these minutes and play these games. And it’s a credit to him. And I think he wants to play these games. And we have several guys like that and I think that’s important.”

Not coincidentally, Randle’s struggles coincided with the absence of Jalen Brunson, who sat down again Sunday with a sore foot. Among the criticisms of Randle last season was that his effort and attitude foundered when the going got tough. He worked on better leadership and focus over the summer, which has translated into success for much of the current season.

“You have to be mentally strong to get through things. Sometimes it’s not easy,” Thibodeau said. “Sometimes things don’t go the way you want. So how do you get them on your way? So the more you invest in something, the harder it is to give up. And the more you fight and overcome things. I think being mentally strong through adversity is probably the most important thing there is.”

Hornets coach Steve Clifford applauded Randle for his availability after citing his boss, Michael Jordan, who played in 81 games at age 39 in his final season. Clifford was also an assistant for the Knicks from 2001 to 2003.

“I used to be here (at MSG), the first thing you would see, which was from Pat Riley to Jeff Van Gundy, was the durability chart,” Clifford said. “You got one point for one game, one point for practice, one point for shooting practice. If you missed one, it went back to zero.”

Clifford added that “you can’t really prove that load management is a valid thing, you can’t. And I think former players would probably agree with that.”

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