RJ Barrett is a man on a mission.
Miffed by the seemingly never-ending disrespect about his game and career trajectory, Barrett put on the type of performance that should silence his doubters.
Barrett scored 16 of his new career-high 35 points in the fourth quarter, including nine in the final 99 seconds, as the Knicks repelled the injury-plagued New Orleans Pelicans, 123-117, Saturday night at the Smoothie King Center for their third straight win.
The Knicks improved to 5-1, catching the Washington Wizards at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Barrett took over down the stretch with his college running mate and friend Zion Williamson, the no.1 pick in their draft class, reduced to being a spectator due to a foot injury.
After a 9-0 Pelicans run trimmed the Knicks’ lead down to two, 111-109, with 1:51 left, Barrett started his takeover. He used a double screen by Taj Gibson and Kemba Walker to drill a three-pointer from the top of the key.
A Devonte Graham three-point play proved to be New Orleans’ final stand. In the next play, Barrett set up Gibson for a wide-open dunk off a pick and roll. With the Pelicans forcing him to go right after repeatedly killing them with his left, he gladly welcomed the challenge. Barrett used Gibson’s pick and went to his right, and calmly drilled a three-pointer.
The Knicks’ cushion pushed to seven, 119-112, with 43.9 seconds to go. Barrett scored three more free throws to put the game away.
“He was terrific. He had an all-around game from start to finish. Clutch shots. Great hustle. Great effort. Rebounding the ball. He made plays. He got downhill, shot it well. That’s what RJ is and we needed it,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau effusive in his praise of Barrett.
Indeed the Knicks needed Barrett’s offensive brilliance on the night when Randle was held down to a season-low 10 points. But Barrett, the 2019 third overall pick, returned the favor to Thibodeau for handing him the keys to the Knicks’ offense down the stretch.
“That was Thibs,” Barrett said. “Thibs was running plays for me at the end. It’s kind of reading the defense. I know I’m the type of player who can have nights like that and I’m just happy that I was able to show that today. But I’m just trying to win really and read what the defense was giving us.”
Barrett showed his complete offensive package tearing apart the Pelicans’ defense. His 12 makes from 18 attempts came from constantly putting the pressure on the rim, scoring off the bounce, drilling stepback 3s, and picking his spots on the floor. He was 6 for 8 from deep and added seven rebounds and a season-high six assists.
Pelicans guard Josh Hart got pinned down in the double screen that opened up Barrett for the three-pointer, which kickstarted the Knicks’ closing run. He was disappointed with their defensive execution.
“Everyone in the league knows RJ Barrett is going left. And in a game like that, it comes down to possessions, you can’t let that happen. You can’t allow him to go left constantly and he did. Obviously, he’s a good player but we have to make sure we’re going to execute our game plan a little bit better,” Hart said.
But even if they know Barrett was going left, it’s hard to stop him when he’s in rhythm, not now that he has learned to use his body and strength.
“[RJ] knows he’s good. He never questions himself. He’s playing an all-around game. When he goes downhill, I think people don’t realize how big and strong he is,” Thibodeau said. “He can take contact and so, he’s getting more comfortable with it. He works at it. You can’t say enough about him.”
His offseason work with his trainer Drew Hanlen, who focused on his off the bounce game after adding a catch and shoot 3 last season, is paying off.
Knicks associate head coach Johnnie Bryant is also helping Barrett. Bryant, who worked with Jazz rising star Donovan Mitchell in Utah, has been teaching Barrett how to use his strength and angles, changing his old, ineffective way of playing bully ball. Barrett admitted he used to drive to the basket with his head down.
Despite his second straight big game, Barrett is still far from satisfied.
“It was definitely a good game offensively, but I was terrible defensively. That’s not good. But you know, we were able to get the win and that’s the most important thing,” Barrett said.
It almost felt like a trap game after New Orleans’ other go-to guy Brandon Ingram joined Williamson on the sidelines with a hip contusion. The Pelicans played on back-to-back nights following another tough loss to the Sacramento Kings on Friday. They slid to a league-worst 1-6, tied with Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers.
In a game that brought back haunting memories of their upset loss to the Magic last week, the Knicks led by as many as 16. But the Pelicans kept answering every time they tried to pull away.
Randle had a sub-par game by his standards. The All-Star forward shot just four of nine from the floor, pulled down six rebounds, and handed out four assists in a game-high 38 minutes.
But unlike last season, when the Knicks could only win three of the eight games in which Randle put up less than 15 points, they had enough firepower this time.
Aside from Barrett, new additions Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier combined for nine triples and scored 19 points apiece.
The Knicks continued their splendid outside shooting sinking 19 of 33 3s for a staggering 57.6 percent clip.
In the fourth quarter, Mitchell Robinson and Gibson held their ground against Jonas Valanciunas after the Pelicans big man torched them with 25 points three-fourth of the way. Their defense limited Valanciunas to two points on 1 of 3 shooting in the final quarter.
Gibson had a strong game off the bench, producing 13 points and seven boards, one assist, one steal, and one block as Nerlens Noel continues to be sidelined by a knee injury. Louisiana native Robinson delivered eight points and five rebounds in his hometown.
“We want to develop everyone,” Thibodeau said. “The thing that I like about both [RJ] and Mitch (Robinson) is their age and work ethic. RJ has great work capacity. He wants to be good. It’s important to him. He’s very coachable. He’s a great teammate. And when you see how he approaches things, he has toughness. He has basketball IQ and he has competitiveness. And when you have those three things to go along with your talent, you usually improve.
Barrett’s growth is a positive development for the Knicks, who are off to their best start since winning their first six games during their magical 54-win playoff push in 2013.
With the All-Rookie team and ESPN’s Top 25 under 25 list still on his mind, the 21-year old Barrett continues to play with those big chips on his shoulder.
Following his defensive leap that came to the fore in their win in Chicago the other night, Barrett was asked if he feels that he should be in the same conversation with his draft peers Ja Morant and Williamson.
“Everybody is different,” Barrett said. “Everybody’s journey is different. “It doesn’t matter what anybody says. I know who I am. This team believes in me so, that’s really all that matters.”
His supreme self-belief and the Knicks organization’s faith in him have fueled his surge. It became his mission to become a defensive stalwart in a Knicks team filled with certified bucket-getters. But when Thibodeau put the ball in his hands in the most crucial moments, he flashed his killer instincts and delivered like a superstar.
After one of his six three-pointers, Barrett brought his index finger to his lips to silence the Pelicans crowd and perhaps his doubters.
The usually timid Barrett showed rare emotions on the floor. Barrett has arrived.
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