When the Knicks needed a big basket on Sunday afternoon, they turned to the lefty forward to keep them in the game. Only, it wasn’t Julius Randle this time. It was RJ Barrett.
The 22-year-old forward has stepped up in a big way during the Knicks’ first-round series against the Cavaliers with Randle still hampered by his ankle injury. Barrett averaged 22.5 points, five rebounds, and two assists per game during the Knicks’ two-game homestand which saw them win both games to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
The 26 points RJ Barrett scored in Game 4 were a playoff career-high, and he became only the second Knicks player in history under the age of 23 to score over 25 points in a playoff game. Walt Frazier is the other.
For much of Game 4, RJ Barrett felt like the Knicks’ most reliable scorer. With the game tied at 75 with just under 10 minutes to go, he made a driving layup, finishing through contact by Evan Mobley to convert an and-one. After a Cleveland miss, Barrett made a fadeaway over Cedi Osman to put the Knicks up by five and ignite the Madison Square Garden crowd.
Barrett’s emergence is all the more noteworthy since he didn’t take the steps forward in his development that many expected of him during the regular season. His 19.6 points per game were below his average from last year and while his overall field goal percentage improved, his 31% shooting from beyond the arc was the worst mark of his career.
RJ Barrett also struggled on defense, ranking as the worst defender in the Knicks’ rotation based on FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric. There were even stretches after the team traded for Josh Hart where Barrett was benched for the final minutes of the game in favor of Hart’s defense and rebounding.
Considering RJ Barrett is set to begin a new contract next year that will pay him an average of $26.75 million over four seasons, the lack of development was a major talking point for much of the Knicks’ season.
However, his early performance in the 2023 postseason may begin to alleviate some of the concerns. Even when his shot wasn’t falling in Game 1, Barrett found a way to contribute to help push his team to a victory.
“In game one he played really well,” said head coach Tom Thibodeau. “He had a very good floor game. Six assists, four steals…I thought he made good reads. If there were there was penetration, he moved onto penetration. If he got open shots, he shot. If someone was there, he drove, so he kept the game simple and played a terrific all-around game.”
More than just the improvement in the box score, the mental growth that Thibodeau is alluding to is monumental for RJ Barrett. There were many instances during the season where he seemed to be in his own head, missing easy reads, second-guessing what he was seeing on the court, and forcing the issue on plays that weren’t there.
Yet, aside from a Game 2 where non of the Knicks really came to play, Barrett has displayed tremendous confidence and decision-making against Cleveland. In addition to attacking the basket with better angles and more assertiveness, he’s also making great reads with his passes, keeping the Knicks’ offense humming. In the first four games of the series, Barrett has just three combined turnovers.
“The thing about RJ is he’s very steady; he doesn’t get rattled,” said Thibodeau. “I thought that he was really aggressive [Thursday]. We got to get him into the open floor. When we do that and he’s gonna make shots. He gets downhill and he’s tough to guard.”
When he was drafted four years ago, RJ Barrett hinted at his ability to do this. When Stephen A Smith asked him what he could bring to the next level, Barrett said, “The biggest thing is my confidence. I’m built for this.”
Stephen A Smith: “So New Yorkers are looking at you right now”
RJ Barrett: “Mm hmm”
Stephen A: “What is it about you…that you’re bringing to the next level, that New Yorkers should look forward to?”
RJ: “Biggest thing is my confidence. I’m built for this” pic.twitter.com/DYbRkZNQyv
— New York Basketball (@NBA_NewYork) April 24, 2023
That mental fortitude has been amplified under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. While some players, like Donovan Mitchell, seemed out of sorts in the raucous environment, RJ Barrett seemed to thrive.
“As a basketball player, you grow up dreaming about moments like these,” he said after the Game 3 win. “It’s been amazing,” he added when asked about playing in such a loud environment. “The fans are really helping us.”
Barrett has also been helping himself by learning not to force the issue but to take what the defense is giving him.
“A lot of times they were doubling Jalen [Brunson[, so I was able to get the ball and make a play,” he said after the Game 4 win. “The drive for the dunk or a couple of the layups that I had… It was a total team effort.”
Except Barrett is now emerging as a catalyst for this team. He shot 17-of-30 from the floor during the homestand and will look to continue his improved play as the team heads on the road to Cleveland to try and close out the series.
Coach Thibodeau frequently mentions that “the game tells you what to do,” and it seems like RJ Barrett is starting to listen.
For more Knicks coverage, like this RJ Barrett article, visit amNY Sports
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