RJ Barrett rises in the clutch as Knicks move up to 11th

RJ Barrett had an off night on offense, but he came through when the New York Knicks needed him the most.

Barrett scored the insurance free throws and made a defensive gem on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s three-point attempt at the buzzer as the Knicks escaped with a 100-97 win over the Washington Wizards Friday night at the Garden.

“RJ had an off night, but he kept competing,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau said.

Barrett only managed to shoot 6 of 22 from the field, but he scored half of his 18 points in the fourth quarter. His three-pointer at the four-minute mark gave the Knicks a 15-point lead.  Then the Wizards rallied behind former Knicks lottery pick Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma to come within one, 98-97, with 42.4 seconds left.

Porzingis was once the beacon of hope for the Knicks. He became an All-Star and was on his way to breaking the rookie-extension curse for Knicks’ first-round picks until his fragile body and ego got in the way and led to a messy divorce. The 19,812 sellout crowd at the Garden lustily booed Porzingis. Unperturbed, he dropped six points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter and almost had the last laugh. He finished with 18 and 11 rebounds but was denied to take the most important shots that went to Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope, which he said was in the flow of the game.

On the other end, Barrett, the new symbol of hope for the Knicks franchise, rose to the occasion. Despite his poor shooting, Barrett rescued the Knicks, a knight in shining armor. His better demeanor and overall leadership trump whatever Porzingis accomplished as a Knick. Barrett is on his way to doing what Porzingis failed to do — re-signed with the franchise after his rookie deal, a feat that hasn’t happened in over two decades.

Since the start of the new year, Barrett’s star turn has been the most crucial development for the Knicks, who may fall short of their playoff aspirations this season.

Barrett has averaged 23.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists over 23 games since January 2. During this best stretch of his young career, Barrett is shooting 41.9 percent from the field and 37.2 percent on 6.0 three-point attempts. His free throw attempts have also gone up to 7.1, making a respectable 71.8 percent. He was 5 for 6 at the stripes Friday night against the Wizards.

Before the new year, Barrett was only averaging 15.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.2 assists while shooting 40.0 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from beyond the arc. His free throw attempts were a meager 3.6 per game.

The Knicks are scrambling to make the play-in and have won five of their last seven games, where Barrett averaged 23.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. The Knicks have been outscoring their opponents by 14.6 points when Barrett is on the floor during that stretch. More importantly, his free throw percentage — his Achilles heel — went up to 84.1 percent on 6.3 free throw attempts.

In the same seven-game stretch, the Knicks are the best defensive team in the NBA with a 102.6 defensive rating while the current no.1 team in the league, Phoenix Suns, is a far second allowing 105.2 points per 100 possessions.

The Knicks need a miracle — keep winning while the Hawks and Hornets go on a losing streak — to have a chance to gatecrash the play-in tournament. They will face the Hawks and Hornets on a back-to-back set on Tuesday and Wednesday that may well decide their fate. But even if they fall short, they can take this late-season surge momentum onto the next season where Barrett could make the All-Star leap.

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