RJ Barrett’s star turn boosts Knicks’ playoff chances

After the New York Knicks lost to the lowly Oklahoma City Thunder on New Year’s eve, RJ Barrett sheepishly warned, “don’t sleep on us.”

Since then, the Knicks have gone 3-2 to match their 20-21 record after 41 games last season. Barrett had his fingerprint all over those three wins — a 32-point game against the Indiana Pacers, his first game-winning buzzer-beater against the Boston Celtics, and Monday night’s 31-point gem against the San Antonio Spurs.

After Ja Morant’s ascent as an inevitable All-Star point guard, this season capped by a back-to-back NBA Player of the Week runs, Barrett’s star turn has arrived.

Over his last seven games, Barrett has scored in double figures, averaging 22.1 points on 46/39/67 shooting splits with 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

Before that, he averaged 14.6 points on 39/34/70 shooting splits with 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists in his first 27 games.

The game is starting to slow down for Barrett. It’s becoming simple as his rim reads have shown in his methodical performance against the San Antonio Spurs.

When he saw the Spurs loading up on Randle, Barrett took over.

He wasn’t only standing in the corner waiting for the pass for a catch-and-shoot three-pointer as he did for much of the early part of the season.

He mixed and matched, as noted by Evan Fournier that had the Spurs’ defense scrambling, not knowing what hit them.

A breakaway windmill dunk in the second quarter kept his confidence rising.

His eight straight points to close out the second quarter became the game’s turning point that shifted the momentum to the Knicks’ side after they trailed by as many as eight points.

Barrett pressured the rim, and when the Spurs’ defense collapsed on him, he gave up the ball, leading to easy offense.

Barrett’s playmaking has been underrated, but he grew up in Canada as a point guard before turning into an athletic, bruising swingman in Duke.

He had four assists, the second-most among the Knicks against the Spurs behind Immanuel Quickley and rookie Quentin Grimes’ six dimes each.

Barrett delivered on both ends, including a jaw-dropping monster block on Spurs’ big man Drew Eubanks.

It was the kind of complete game that Knicks GM Scott Perry expected when he shunned trade-down proposals and stood pat during the 2019 NBA Draft night.

Barrett, the third overall pick in a draft class viewed as a two-way superstar race between his Duke teammate Zion Williamson and Morant, was left behind in his rookie year. He wasn’t even picked in the All-Rookie Team.

But the Knicks patiently waited for Barrett to turn the corner. At 21, he would have been a college senior by now, but Barrett is starting to show maturity in his game with two-and-a-half seasons under his belt.

His 31-point gem against the Spurs was the fourth time he’s scored at least 31 this season and third in the last two months. He joined Luka Doncic, Kevin Durant, and Knicks legend Bernard King as the only NBA players at age 21 or younger to have multiple 30-point games against the Spurs, per ESPN Stats and Info.

Last month, he had 32 points in a 121-109 win over the Spurs in San Antonio.

During training camp, Barrett harped on his aim to become one of the league’s top defensive wings after the Knicks front office brought in Fournier and Kemba Walker to spruce up the Knicks offense that bogged down in last season’s playoffs. He hinted that his scoring would take a backseat with the arrival of more firepower in the starting unit. 

But after enduring another early-season shooting slump plus a stomach virus and COVID-19 that sidelined him for seven games, Barrett has rebounded well.

Last season, the Knicks went to a surprising playoff run after manufacturing their own star in Julius Randle, who blossomed into an All-NBA player. But as Randle’s numbers continue to dip this season, Barrett is starting to pick up the slack.

The Knicks’ playoff chances are predicated on Randle and Barrett to keep improving this season. At least half of the equation is beginning to find its solution.

Don’t sleep on the Knicks, especially when Barrett continues to flash his star potential.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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