During last year’s playoffs with the Dallas Mavericks, Jalen Brunson emerged as a potential star player. Is R.J. Barrett going through the same metamorphosis in this post season?
The 22-year old set a playoff career high with 26 points and sparked the Knicks to a riveting, 102-93 win over Cleveland Cavaliers in game 4 of their Eastern Conference, best of seven first round series before another raucous crowd at Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon.
The Knicks took a three games to one lead in the series with game five scheduled for Cleveland on Wednesday night. According to the stats, a team that takes a 3-1 lead in an NBA playoff has a 95% chance to win the series.
Jalen Brunson led the Knicks with 29 points, but it was Barrett who picked up the slack for a still hobbled Julius Randle.
Once again, the Knicks controlled the boards as they outrebounded the Cavaliers, 47-33 including a 17-7 edge in offensive rebounding and a 21-12 advantage in second chance points.
Mitchell Robinson cleaned up some errant shots to score 12 points with 11 rebounds with seven on the offensive end. Randle, who is still dealing with an injured ankle, was 3 for 10, 0 for 4 from three and scored seven points.
Donovan Mitchell had a game he’ll want to forget. The Cavaliers guard was held to 11 points on 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 for 4 from three. Mitchell scored two points after halftime and that bucket came with just over two minutes left and the Knicks leading by nine.
In the second half, the Cavaliers were determined to not let Brunson beat them so the onus was on some of the other Knicks to step up and Barrett did that and more.
Barrett was 9 of 18 from the floor but 0 for 6 from three. He was able to get to the rim against Cleveland’s bigs in Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley and also get to the line for 13 foul shots. Barrett missed five free throws, but his points came at opportune times.
Late in the second quarter, the Knicks offense stalled and Barrett had two big buckets in the final 2:30 of the first half as the Knicks took a 54-45 lead at halftime.
Cleveland got a spark from Darius Garland coming out of the break. The 23-year old point guard seemed to be unstoppable as he scored 11 points with 5 assists in the third quarter. Garland, who finished with 23 points and 10 assists, helped the Cavaliers take their first lead of the game, 63-61, midway through the third quarter.
“They just came back with a vengeance in the start of the third quarter,” Brunson said. “Once they took that lead, you kinda looked around together and said we just gotta calm ourselves and get this under control and stick together.”
Knicks were trailing and were looking lethargic 69-66 with three and a half minutes left in the third quarter when Coach Tom Thibodeau made a key substitution by inserting Isaiah Hartenstein.
“Our defense wasn’t very good and we were playing slowly, but I think when you’re not getting stops, that tends to lead to that,” said Thibodeau. “We know there’s gonna be shifts in games and we gotta make sure that we can get through that. We responded, got hit hard and picked ourselves up and came back.”
It didn’t take long for Hartenstein to make an impact. Less than 30 seconds after he entered the game, Hartenstein blocked Isaac Okoro’s dunk and on the ensuing possession, he had the assist on Barrett’s finger roll as the Knicks regained the lead, 70-69.
Okoro’s lay up gave the Cavaliers a 71-70 lead but Brunson hit a three with less than 10 seconds left to give the Knicks a 73-71 lead after three.
Thibodeau made a surprising move in the fourth quarter by going with a unit of Brunson, Barrett, Hart, Robinson and Obi Toppin, while keeping Julius Randle on the bench. “Those guys built the lead and obviously, whatever you think gives your team the best chance to win, that’s what you’re gonna do,” he said.
Thibodeau made it a point to note that Randle was still hurting but is gutting it out by even taking the court. “Julius is our horse, he’s given us everything that he has,” Thibodeau said. “A lot of guys probably wouldn’t even be playing, so I knew with the quick turn around [would], probably impact him more than most players.”
With the score tied at 75 early in the fourth quarter, Barrett was opportunistic as he scored five straight points to give the Knicks a five point lead.
Barrett scored on a driving lay up and was fouled to make it 78-75. Okoro missed and Barrett hit a pretty fadeaway jumper from the corner to make it 80-75 with less than nine minutes left. “I just wanted to continue to make the right play, make the right reads, just do whatever to help the team win,” Barrett said.
Toppin only scored five points, but he had a season high eight rebounds, including an offensive board that he converted into two points and an 86-79 lead. “I was a lot more physical today on the glass, basically knew what I had to do coming into the game to get the win,” Toppin said.
Cleveland hung in there, but a dunk by Josh Hart with under five minutes remaining made it a 92-83 Knicks lead.
Brunson hit a three with less than two minutes left and Barrett applied the dagger with a short, pull up jumper in the lane to make it 100-90 with less than a minute left.
Barrett credited the sell out crowd at MSG for helping the Knicks rediscover their game late in the third quarter.
“Its been amazing, its been helping,” Barrett said. “It’s been helping a lot. Especially when we’re going on those runs, it helps us even more. The crowd, they just help us get back in the game. They [Cavaliers] really threw a crazy punch there in the third so the fans have really been helping a lot.”
Barrett’s emergence in this series has been a pleasant surprise to some, but the ability has always been there. It comes down to a matter of consistency and confidence. Barrett’s strength is getting to the rim and he’s run with that the past two games.
“Super aggressive, downhill, getting to the line with those attacks. I thought attacking the double teams, getting to the back side, put them in some close outs, long close outs and I thought he [Barrett] read the close outs well,” Thibodeau said.
Brunson may not have realized he was paraphrasing the great Yogi Berra, when he put the Knicks position in perspective.
“It’s not over, not even close to being over,” Brunson said.