R.J. Barrett may not be a “must watch” player right now, but he is getting close to that status.
Barrett scored 31 points last night as the Knicks cruised past the Portland Trailblazers at the Garden, 128-98. The win snapped a two game losing streak for the Knicks and a five game losing streak at MSG.
Julius Randle scored 20 points with 9 rebounds and 7 assists in one of his better all around games, while Immanuel Quickley scored 18 points and dished out 6 assists off the bench.
The Knicks are still hoping for a shot at the play in tournament. With the win and Atlanta losing to Charlotte, the Knicks are five games behind the 10th place Hawks and 5.5 behind the 9th place Hornets with 13 to play.
Randle was asked if he watches the standings. “Thibs would let us know,” he said.
This was one of the Knicks better all around games as they dominated the stat sheet. The Knicks had 31 assists, a 19-9 edge in fast break points, and they shot 82.1% from the free throw line (32-39).
“We kept the ball moving which was important. I think the willingness for everyone to make the extra pass,” Thibodeau said after the game. “We didn’t just wind up and go one on one. We drove it, we sprayed it, we made the extra pass, we got good rhythm off that.”
Barrett was 10 for 20, including 5 of 11 from beyond the arc. Since he came back from his injury and including his career high, 46-point game, Barrett is averaging just over 26 PPG over his last nine.
Thibodeau offered some insight into how Barrett has evolved this season. “Now he’s gotten comfortable of reading the defense, knowing how to get off the ball and then know how to keep moving till it comes back to him,” said Thibodeau. “Also, getting out in transition and running the floor. I love him in those situations because I think the defense can’t get set. He’s got his size and once he gets inside and he’s downhill, very difficult to stop.”
The Knicks bolted to a 66-55 halftime lead as Barrett had 21 points after 24 minutes. It became a 78-62 lead in the third but Portland went on an 8-0 run to narrow the deficit to single digits with less than five minutes left in the quarter.
Evan Fournier, who chipped in with 14 points, scored to make it 80-70. Alec Burks and R.J. Barrett followed with threes and Randle scored four straight points late in the third, as the Knicks had a 94-74 lead after three.
Coach Tom Thibodeau, who reportedly was told he will return next season, put a lineup of Obi Toppin, Jericho Sims, Miles McBride, Burks and Barnett on the floor to start the fourth quarter.
Toppin scored 9 of his 13 points in the final 12 minutes. McBride played 20 minutes and had 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 7 points. Sims is showing signs he can be a pretty good back up center while Quickley ran the team very efficiently as he played the entire fourth quarter. Thibodeau is pleased with how Quickley has found his game. “Where he is right now is terrific,” he said.
Barrett’s ascent will end up being the most important aspect of a very disappointing season. Whether he can become the #1 option on a championship team is a question that will be answered in time, but Barrett has become the key piece for the Knicks to build around.
Even if Barrett becomes that option, he’ll still need a big time player as a running mate. That’s not going to be Randle and that’s not going to be someone who will be easy to find or bring aboard. It’s going to take a big name player who has some guts to come here and would embrace the challenge to restore the Knicks to championship contention.
We don’t really know what the Knicks hierachy has planned for this off season or what direction the team is headed because President Leon Rose does not, nor any one of his lieutenants, address the media.
Rose blew it this last off season. Bringing in Kemba Walker turned into a disaster and passing on DeMar DeRozan goes right along with the program of poor personnel decisions over the past 20 years.
The Knicks will likely miss the playoffs and that will put even more pressure on Rose and the front office in this upcoming off season. “Sounds of Silence” may have been a big hit for Simon and Garfunkel. It’s not for the Knicks.