RJ Barrett’s defensive gem fuels Knicks’ surge to the top of the East

Work hard until your idols become your rivals.

New York Knicks defensive stalwart RJ Barrett was only 12 years old when DeMar DeRozan hit his first game-winning shot in the NBA in 2013.

Eight years later, Barrett leaned on his memory bank to thwart DeRozan’s potential game-winner as the Knicks survived Chicago Bulls’ late push and gave them their first loss of the season, 104-103, Thursday night on the road.

With 4.8 seconds remaining and the Knicks hanging on to a single thread of what was once a comfortable 13-point lead, DeRozan took the inbound pass then faked a hand-off to Zach Lavine. The misdirection forced DeRozan’s defender Evan Fournier to switch with Barrett, who momentarily lost his defensive ground. But when Barrett saw the new Bulls gunner turn to the corner, he already knew what was about come next.

“I’ve watched [DeMar] so much growing up in Toronto. He’s always been one of my favorite players — the pride and joy of Toronto. So, I’ve seen that shot fake a lot,” Barret said after the gut-wrenching win. “He’s a great player. Thankfully, I was able to stay down and Mitch (Robinson) came over to help.”

Barrett did not bite DeRozan’s fake. He stayed in front of DeRozan and challenged the shot with the help of Robinson. It resulted in an airball at the buzzer that sucked the life out of the United Center.

The Knicks improved to 4-1, the franchise’s best start since the 54-win Carmelo Anthony-led team in 2013. Their latest squeaker also forced a four-way logjam at the top of the Eastern Conference with their victim, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets.

Barrett had his most complete game of the young season, backing up the earlier talk of his desire to become a top two-way player and crack the First Team All-Defense.

The 21-year old Barrett aggressively attacked the paint on offense and finished with a season-high 20 points. On the other side of the ball, he had a big hand in holding the Bulls’ top two scorers DeRozan and Zach LaVine, to a combined 14-of-35 shooting.

The last defensive sequence proved that Barrett is up to his personal challenge.

“RJ [Barrett] was huge scoring-wise but his defense was over the top,” Tom Thibodeau said. “He was disciplined on that last play. DeRozan’s great at utilizing the shot fake and [Bulls] are a really good team. So, I’m proud of how hard we fought.”

The Knicks had a terrific game for 46 minutes until their offense bogged down. Their veterans lost their composure down the stretch as the Bulls charged back with a 12-0 run.

Kemba Walker had a key turnover. Julius Randle missed a tip-in and two crucial free throws that paved the way for the cardiac ending.

The Knicks turned to their defense to hammer out their second straight win and remained unbeaten on the road. They will continue their road trip on Saturday in New Orleans.

“A win is a win. That’s all that matters at the end of the day. Like coach [Thibodeau] said, find a way to win. “I’ll knock them down next time, but I’m just happy to get a win,” said Randle referring to his missed free throws.

Despite Walker’s late turnover, there were clear signs that the new Knicks starting point guard is starting to get more comfortable. For the second straight game, Walker hit five three-pointers and topped the 20-point scoring mark and usage rate. He led the Knicks with a new season-high 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting.

The spacing and Randle’s facilitating helped Walker pick up steam in the last two games.

Randle played decoy for most of the night as the Bulls’ defense collapsed on him. He missed eight of his 11 shots, but he found other ways to impact the game.

“I just mentioned to the guys about Julius playing a great game without shooting well. His rebounding was off the charts. The playmaking was phenomenal,” Thibodeau said.

Randle scored 11 points, pulled down 16 rebounds, and came one assist shy of a triple-double.

On the night Joakim Noah received a retirement tribute from the Bulls, his former teammates Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson led the Knicks bench to spoil Chicago’s celebration. Rose had 12 points on 50 percent shooting while Gibson added six points, six rebounds, and three blocks.

The trio was part of the most successful Bulls team in the post-Michael Jordan era. DeRozan joined recent All-Stars LaVine and Nikola Vucevic in the franchise’s latest attempt to revive their glory years.

The Knicks are also forging their path back to relevance following their fourth seed finish last season and the addition of Walker and Evan Fournier.

The game lived up to the hype as the return of the Knicks-Bulls rivalry with playoff intensity that boiled down to the last play.

For all the talks that the Bulls are the better team and the Knicks defense would suffer from the departure of Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton, Barrett’s emphatic performance drowns the outside noise.

“It doesn’t matter what anybody says. I know who I am. This team believes in me so, that’s really all that matters,” Barrett said.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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