After missing the last four games, RJ Barrett woke up Friday morning feeling excited.
Barrett’s return to the New York Knicks‘ lineup was welcome news after Kemba Walker decided to sit out the remainder of the season, and Derrick Rose experienced a setback from his ankle surgery recovery.
“I kind of felt good,” Barrett said.
It was an understatement.
Barrett was at his best. He almost singlehandedly willed the Knicks to a giant upset. He scored at will against Jimmy Butler and the league’s top-five defense. But his career-high 46 points was not enough to make up for the gap between the Knicks and the best team of the Eastern Conference.
The Miami Heat dropped the Knicks 10 games under .500 with a methodical 115-110 win but not without a hell of a fight, especially from Barrett.
“He was attacking every chance he got in transition — get into the cup, get into the free-throw line, making the three-ball like he had a hell of a game, all-around game at that,” Butler mused about Barrett after the hard-fought win. “But we all know that he’s capable of that. I don’t think anybody is surprised or should be surprised. He’s going to be playing in this league for a long time definitely, and he’s going to be the face of the Knicks.”
That’s who Barrett has become since the turn of the new year.
Over 15 games in January, Barrett averaged 21.8 points on 44 percent from the floor and 40 percent from behind the arc. Barrett took it to another level this February. After Friday night’s career game, Barrett is now averaging 29.2 points on 43 percent field goal shooting and 42 percent on a staggering 7.6 attempts from deep in five games.
“He had a great month last month. He’s playing great basketball. He played aggressively. It’s a good sign,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s growing.”
Barrett, indeed, is growing right before our eyes. On the floor, he’s making the right plays. Off the floor, he’s saying all the right things.
“It’s bittersweet, especially if you have a night like that. Of course, you want to get the win which is the most important thing,” Barrett said.
His early-season struggles feel like ages ago. At this time of the season, where the stakes are higher, especially for the Knicks, who are on a slump and 3.5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the final play-in spot, Barrett has embraced the pressure of growing into a leadership role in just his third season. He is no longer deferring. He is grabbing every opportunity.
“I think I’ve been able to figure out — adjusting to playing with new teammates,” Barrett said. “I kind of know my spots now. Trying to figure out how to score and be aggressive in other ways. Run the floor, post-ups, rebounds, just add little things to my game.”
It was pretty evident against the Heat. He was one fire. That was how Miami coach Erik Spoelstra’s described Barrett.
“He got some easy, clean looks in that first half — a couple of transitions, one on a miscue on a pick and roll, one on an over help. And so he had four threes on open looks, and that just kind of got him into a great rhythm, and then he got downhill a couple of times,” Spoelstra said. “He was able to draw fouls and just kept on putting pressure on us.”
Barrett credited his teammates, especially Julius Randle and Alec Burks, for finding him. Randle and Burks accounted for 34 direct passes to Barrett. Mitchell Robinson came in third with 10.
“My teammates made it easier for me. Julius had a couple of plays where I feel like he could have scored, and he kicked it to me. That one really, really got me going in the game. AB (Burks) hit me on top of the key, and I was able to go downhill,” Barrett said.
By halftime, Barrett had 30 points, his career-high in a single half. The rest of the team had only scored 25. They recognized he got the hot hands. He did not fail them as he was efficient, sinking nine of 13 shots and had no turnover.
“I feel like I’ve kind of spoken into existence,” Barrett said.
Like he always does, he went hard at practice in the week leading to his return from the unfortunate injury that struck him in Denver more than two weeks ago.
Barrett took over on the night Julius Randle snoozed into his annual post-All-Star break slumber. He was locked in. He was breathing fire. It didn’t matter if it was an open or a well-challenged shot. The three-level scorer, his critics thought he wouldn’t reach, showed up and was punishing one of the best defensive teams in the league.
“When you get rolling like that, it’s a different feeling,” Barrett said.
Tyler Herro, who broke through in the Orlando Bubble during his rookie year that had some fans wondering if the Knicks made a mistake on picking Barrett, praised Barrett for a great effort.
Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo offered a much better perspective.
“It’s confidence. You can see it in his body language. You can see it in his face like he wants to be that guy, and he wants to take this team to another level,” said Adebayo while marveling at the 22 free throws Barrett attempted.
Barrett’s 14 of 22 trips to the line was a dampener aside from the three turnovers he coughed up in the fourth quarter.
“I just had terrible turnovers. I don’t know what I was doing. I’m going to watch the film and figure out those spots where to be effective. I had some silly mistakes that I wish I could take back and some free throws I wish I could take back,” Barrett said.
He came four points short of making history as the youngest Knicks player to score 50. That record still belongs to Knicks legend Willis Reed, who did it in 1967 at 25 years old. Barrett is only 21 and has four more years to rewrite it.
“I was just trying to get to 50. Man, I just missed free throws,” Barrett said.
True to his character, he went back hard at practice the following morning and did not stop until making 200 free throws, according to Fred Katz of The Athletic. Barrett is shooting 69 percent from the free-throw line this season, just half a shade above his career average (68.5 percent).
The Knicks have lost 14 of their last 17 games. Their remaining schedule is unforgiving. The play-in tournament is still mathematically reachable, but it is slipping away.
The present may seem dark, but the future looks brighter than ever. In what is quickly becoming a lost season for the Knicks, Barrett finds out who he is as a player.
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