RJ Barrett stepped up big time in Games 3 and 4 against the Cavs. His confident, aggressive scoring has the Knicks on the brink of advancing.
There is no place like home — and no place like New York City. Who knew all RJ Barrett needed to get going was a home-cooked meal?
Barrett’s home for the past four years has been at 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, New York, NY. Over the weekend, Barrett found the madness within Madison Square Garden to deliver a pair of clutch performances that now have the New York Knicks flying to Ohio up 3-1 on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Heading into the series, Barrett was the clear x-factor for the Knicks. Through four games, that has held true for the most part.
The first two games were not great for Barrett. In fact, it made sense for Barrett to find a comfortable seat on the sideline at one point in this series. Scoring 21 points on 6-25 shooting through two games will do that.
Game 1 was bad, yet not horrific. Barrett scored only seven points but contributed across the board, adding six assists, four rebounds and a team-high four steals in the victory. It would be a reach to say Barrett’s even stat line played a huge role in the victory. That credit belongs to Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle and the Harts.
Game 2 was different. It was bad…really bad. The Knicks were mopped all over the floor against the frisky Cavaliers squad that made it clear they were out to prove they were not soft. Barrett’s final line — 14 points, two rebounds, and one steal in 33 minutes — hides how bad a night it was before some garbage time buckets. Barrett was hesitant on offense and non-existent on defense after performing well on Darius Garland in Game 1.
That set the stage for this weekend. It is not hyperbole to say these two games were the biggest of RJ Barrett’s young career. The noise of the Donovan Mitchell trade was getting louder. On Friday night, Barrett channeled that noise, and the noise from the MSG maniacs, to his advantage.
Barrett looked noticeably amped up to start Game 3. He was aggressive from the opening whistle. The hesitation with the ball disappeared. On his first touch of the game, Barrett drilled a catch-and-shoot three-pointer. His next was a coast-to-coast layup after he stripped Garland at the rim. Again, no hesitation to his game.
Barrett scored 10 points in the first quarter to keep the Knicks alive in what started as a 17-17 fistfight. He entered halftime with a team-high 14 points along with five rebounds and one steal. In just one half, he doubled his production from beyond the arc, hitting two of five attempts, surpassing his 1-8 shooting in the first two games combined.
He would score five more points in the third, when the Knicks extended the lead to 20 and effectively ended the game. The 19-point performance was desperately needed to fill in for an ailing Randle, who finished with just 11 points on 2-10 shooting.
On Sunday, Barrett once again filled in as the second option, replicating the decisive attacking from Friday night, turning it up a notch. On the first possession of the game, Barrett took a handoff from Brunson and made a beeline to the rim, scoring the opening bucket. That aggressiveness stayed with him the whole night as he scored 26 points on an efficient 9-18 from the field to co-pilot a win with Brunson for the second straight game.
What made Barrett’s performance unique, and a hopeful one for fading Barrett supporters, was his 0-6 shooting from three. Unlike Game 3, Barrett could not hit an outside shot, but it did not matter. Barrett had rediscovered what he does best, getting to the rim, and scored a playoff career-high doing it.
The shooting touch remains as predictable as roulette, which makes it vital for Barrett to get as close to the rim as possible. There, he can rely on his strength and craftiness to get the layup or, at least, a visit to the free throw line. Barrett could’ve easily scored 30 points Sunday had he made his free throws (8-13). That is what he can build on.
The more important stat was his 50.0% shooting from the floor. When he is right, it opens things up for shooters. If Quentin Grimes can return for the next game, he will be coming back to open looks from the corner.
For the staunch Barrett loyalists, the last two games were proof of the 22-year-old’s upside. It always sounds like a cop-out to say you have to read between the lines with Barrett because the stats are not usually pretty. But his relentlessness does produce good results eventually. The one thing that stood out from his game, dating back to Montverde, was his usage of Marshawn Lynch’s “run through a motherf**ker face” approach to the game. Run through someone enough times and they eventually break. And through it all, you cannot tell if Barrett is having the game of his life or the game from hell.
“I’ve said this before, in the game of basketball sometimes it doesn’t go your way, but his demeanor, his mindset, it never changes,” Jalen Brunson said of Barrett’s strong homestand.
With the series shifting to Cleveland, the Knicks will need Barrett to keep the momentum going. With the chance to go for the kill on the road, Brunson is going to need a reliable number two with Julius Randle clearly still ailing. Barrett has never been shy, it has always been about decisiveness.
Looking ahead, though, when Randle has been right this season, he is another walking 20-plus scorer. In the halfcourt grinds of the postseason, it is not unthinkable for Barrett to be the driver while Randle and Brunson pepper away with jumpers. One game at a time.
For now, the two-game showcase has RJ Barrett’s stock back on the rise, and the Knicks are on the cusp of second-round playoff basketball, something the Knicks have not seen in ten years.