The Knicks may have let go of a double-digit lead against the Raptors, but RJ Barrett once again showed up huge in the fourth quarter.

The hearts of New York Knicks’ (27-27) fans had their hearts pumping so hard during the Knicks’ last win it felt like a cardio exercise. Tonight, the Knicks decided to get their fans some more cardio work, this time by securing a nail-biting 102-96 victory against the Toronto Raptors (21-33).

In years past, a matchup late in the season between these teams would be mostly insignificant, with the playoff-bound Raptors beating down on the inferior Knicks. Tonight, it seemed like the ‘Bockers would flip the script on their intra-divisional foes.

New York started off by driving and thriving, pushing the tempo and hitting shots inside. Several steals from Reggie Bullock helped ignite a strong opening. Julius Randle showed that he didn’t need a passport to get into Toronto’s defense. The big man rumbled his way into the paint time after time, collecting buckets and throwing dimes along the way.

Defensively, the Knicks threw Toronto off their rhythm by playing aggressively in pick-and-rolls, using the screener’s defender to pressure the ball-handler. They also created some havoc off of the ball by racking up some steals. Toronto shot 5-of-21 in the opening period, good for only 16 points.

New York maintained a level of defensive intensity that left Toronto scrambling for answers. Pascal Siakam had a particularly tough time, shooting 1-for-11 from the floor in the first half.  Despite shooting 5-of-21 from beyond the arc, the Knicks led 56-42 at halftime thanks to 18 points from Randle.

Right out of the gate in the third quarter, New York kept their foot on the gas. They pushed the lead to a game-high 18 points but the Raptors didn’t die. They cut it down to six points by holding the Knicks scoreless for nearly two minutes. New York pushed their lead back to 10 before a leak in the Garden’s roof caused a delay. Frankly, given the dry three-point shooting from both teams, it was somewhat needed.

After the break, the Raptors continued their comeback by using zone defense, Chris Boucher’s long shot-swatting arms, and Gary Trent Jr.’s shot-making. They cut the deficit to two points entering the fourth quarter and with 10 minutes left in the game, they took their first lead of the game.

Struggling mightily against zones has been a theme with this Knicks squad for a while. It’s an important one to patch up as playoff time nears. Giving opponents a foolproof way to shut down their already weak offense is alarming.

New York opened the fourth quarter with Kevin Knox at the four instead of Obi Toppin. It didn’t really matter, though, as rookie Malachi Flynn scored six points in the beginning of the final period to keep the Knicks on their toes. New York forced turnovers and reclaimed the lead thanks to R.J. Barrett and Alec Burks, who provided the late-game heroics last game as well. The Knicks held onto the lead, though the Raptors fought like hell to take it back.

Randle’s 26 points led New York, and he racked up eight rebounds and five assists as well. Barrett scored 19 points and dished out five assists. Nerlens Noel put up 13 rebounds, nine points, and four blocks. For Toronto, Trent Jr. posted 23 points, Boucher posted 17 points, 14 rebounds, and four blocks and Kyle Lowry tallied 19 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and three steals.

RJ Barrett steps up again

Rowan Alexander Barrett Jr. was made for winning time. After willing New York to a closely fought victory in their last game, he did it again. Several fourth-quarter buckets, namely a huge corner three, helped the Knicks stave off the surging Raptors. Barrett scored 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting in the second half.

At age 20, Barrett is providing a well-rounded offensive attack, stout defense, and clutch buckets for a team with legit playoff hopes. He’s a star-in-the-making hiding in plain sight. New York City already sees it, so it’s only a matter of time before his shine is seen elsewhere.

Braided Randle byke…briefly

Tom Thibodeau’s guidance and offseason work are big reasons for Randle’s improvement this season but don’t discount the change in his hairstyle. When Randle’s hair is more free-flowing and loose, so is he. He was, at least, for the first half of this game.

Randle muscled his way to a game-high 18 first-half points but tailed off greatly in the second half, scoring only four points in the fourth quarter. His inability to bound and astound as the game wound down left the door open for Barrett to come through again.

The Knicks wrap up their homestand tomorrow night against the shorthanded Los Angeles Lakers at 7:30 p.m. ET.


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