Julius Randle and RJ Barrett have to regain mojo — and fast

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ATLANTA — The word was everywhere, all season long, start to finish, up and down the roster. Forget all the adjectives overheated Knicks fans emptied into their water-cooler conversations with each other. One word summed it all up: improvement.

The Knicks were the most-improved team in the NBA. Julius Randle was the most-improved player in the league, and he has a trophy to show for it. And despite that, RJ Barrett was almost certainly the most-improved player on the team.

That’s who the Knicks were. That’s what they were. They embraced it. They rode with it. They let it fuel them to that 41-31 record, to that No. 4 seed, to reinventing New York City as a basketball town again. It served them awfully well.

It must serve them well again.

Because it really is as simple as this: The Knicks must improve — vastly, quickly, substantially — in the 36 hours that connect the end of Game 3 Friday and the 1 o’clock start of Game 4 on Sunday. Specifically, the Knicks’ Improvement Twins need to lead the way. The Knicks as a whole need to be a lot better Sunday than they were Friday.

And Randle and Barrett need to lead the way.

“I’m getting a lot of wide-open shots,” Barrett said, employing the same monotone he favors, win or lose, good game or bad. “I need to make them.”

Said Randle: “We’ve got to adjust. We will. I’ll leave it at that.”

It was a miserable game for the two players most responsible for the Knicks’ epic turnaround season. By halftime they were a combined 1-for-14 shooting from the field — 1-for-9 for Randle, 0-for-5 for Barrett.

Somehow, the Knicks managed to stay with the Hawks anyway. They actually led 39-38 with 5 ½ minutes left in the first half, even with Randle and Barrett looking a step slow and a stride off the whole while. But the Knicks can’t survive that way, even if Derrick Rose — finally getting the starting nod — tried to keep them afloat all by himself.

What happened was inevitable: a devastating 20-3 run, a 14-point deficit at the half, a 105-94 loss that sent them into a 1-2 hole in this best-of-seven first-round playoff series. The Knicks never did get any closer than the final score the rest of the game. It sure felt like a lot worse of a beating than 11 points.

“I’m very confident in both guys,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, and while that’s no doubt true and it’s a nice thing to say, he really has no choice in the matter. This is three games in a row now in which Randle hasn’t come anywhere close to reaching the level he performed across almost every one of the 71 game in which he played this year. Barrett hasn’t been as bad, but he sure was Friday night.

Randle finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, but shot a miserable 2-for-15 from the floor. Barrett made a couple of token shots across the last two minutes, but finished with only seven points, missing seven of his nine shots.

Rose — who finished with a game-high 30 — pointed to a telling stat: the Knicks scored zero fast-break points on the night. If Randle and Barrett are both going to scuffle in the half-court — and credit the Hawks for that, they’ve been terrific — it would be awfully helpful to open things up a tad.

“Get them some easy baskets,” Rose said.

What can’t happen is the perfect storm that happened Friday night: The Knicks’ two best players way down, the Hawks’ best player, Trae Young, residing on another level, again, this time with 21 points and 14 assists … and everyone else on the Hawks shooting bonkers, too (Atlanta made 16 out of 27 from 3; that’s an unconscious 59.3 percent in any league).

“They made their shots, we missed ours,” Randle said.

Yes: 2-for-15. Two-for-nine. Four-for-24 between them.

That just can’t happen again. Not Sunday. Not Wednesday, not for as long as the series lasts. It’s that simple, too. The Knicks go best when their big guns go well, the way the Hawks did Friday.

“They’re loaded up pretty good,” Thibodeau said. “It’s not just the second guy, it’s the third guy also. So when that happens, the big thing is to get rid of the ball, make plays early. When you do that, usually you can get really high percentage shots off of that. And with your primary scorers, that’s what you want.”

What you want even more: a return of the Randle and Barrett the Knicks saw across most of 72 games. That wouldn’t just be nice. That has suddenly become essential.

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