If you had Julius Randle in your fantasy basketball league, you had a real good night. Randle came up one point short of his career high as he poured in 44 points to lead the Knicks to an important 123-112 victory over the Hawks at the Garden last night. Randle was the headline but the “sidebars” made a huge contribution, particularly R.J. Barrett.
The 20-year old had a rough stretch of games recently where he wasn’t getting on the floor in the fourth quarter, like he was earlier in the year. There was even some ridiculous talk of using Barrett as a trade chip for the Wizards’ Bradley Beal, but last night he vindicated himself with some big shots.
Like the Knicks’ season, Barrett has had some ups and downs, but he is still a very young player and one who continues to show promise. Some were wondering if Barrett’s role with the team was in jeopardy, but last night’s game should quell any concerns. “I’m not worried about RJ.” Coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “RJ’s had an excellent season for us.”
The win was the third straight for the Knicks (14-15) who now have more wins than the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, both Conference finalists last season. The Knicks are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference but only a half game behind the fourth place Indiana Pacers.
With the Knicks clinging to a 104-102 lead, Barrett hit a three pointer from the left corner to make it a five point advantage. The Hawks had two chances to cut into the Knicks’ five point lead but, with less than 2:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, Barrett hit his second huge three of the quarter to essentially put the game away with an eight point advantage, 115-107. “He [Barrett] shot it well, he was good off the bounce,” said Thibodeau. “He did a good job with his team defense, his individual defense was good. He s a huge part of the team.”
Randle continues to be one of the biggest surprises in the NBA this season. The Kentucky product is bringing it every night. “I just feel my game is at a level it hasn’t been at before,” Randle said after downing a career high 7-three pointers.
Randle is not just scoring a lot of points, he’s brought his entire game up a notch, including his distribution skills. Thibodeau said Randle’s unselfish play is being overlooked. “When he’s spraying the ball around, we’re a hard team to guard.”
Earlier this season, the Knicks couldn’t buy a three point basket, but last night, they were 17 of 34, 50%. “These guys have worked extremely hard on their shooting,” Thibodeau said. “They’re putting a lot of extra time in and their concentration and their confidence is coming from seeing the ball go in.”
Atlanta came into the game averaging over 121 PPG so the Knicks did a nice job holding them to 112 points. Derrick Rose, who has provided a spark since re-joining the team, did a tremendous defensive job on the Hawks’ Trae Young in the fourth quarter.
Immanuel Quickley scored 16 points and had five assists but the first round pick’s greatest asset may be his ability to draw fouls and cash in at the free throw line. Quickley is shooting 94% from the foul line.
The second unit of Rose, Quickley, Obi Toppin, Taj Gibson and Alec Burks carried the team for a few games but last night, a combination of the starters and the bench brought the game home in the fourth quarter.
Rose and Quickley, along with Randle, Barrett and Nerlens Noel (who played his best game as a Knick) were on the floor and it showed that Thibodeau will be flexible with his lineups. “Not everyone is going to play great every night. Everyone has to sacrifice, Thibodeau said. “The guys who have it going, those will be the guys that are out there. We need everyone and everyone is stepping up right now.”
The Knicks are stepping up and it’s fun to watch.