The wild card for a struggling team is always this: Maybe you can get better. It’s rarely that easy, of course. Usually it takes a force outside of the ordinary to shake things up: a trade, a benching, a Jeremy Lin falling out of the sky for a couple of
Author: Mike Vaccaro
Published: 2021-12-08 01:13 am
RJ Barrett shows he might just be key to it all for Knicks
nypost.com

The wild card for a struggling team is always this:

Maybe you can get better.

It’s rarely that easy, of course. Usually it takes a force outside of the ordinary to shake things up: a trade, a benching, a Jeremy Lin falling out of the sky for a couple of weeks, an injury that elevates a player with something to prove.

The one that’s hardest to rely on is the wild card. Players playing better a month from now, a week from now, a game from now, than they have all year. Players improve year-to-year. So do teams. It’s harder inside the same season. A player’s basketball-reference.com page doesn’t often lie.

But a coach can hope.

Nights like Tuesday night, Tom Thibodeau and the rest of the folks who care a great deal about the Knicks were allowed to hope because RJ Barrett played one of the great games of his (still) young career: 32 points, five rebounds, a couple of steals and 7-for-8 shooting from behind the 3-point arc.

Nights like Tuesday night, a 121-109 Knicks win against the Spurs at AT&T Center in San Antonio, we are reminded of the career arc that Barrett had put together for himself across his first two years, extending to the first 10 or so games this year.

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Nights like Tuesday night, with Barrett carrying the load in the first half in lieu of a quiet Julius Randle, then adding a couple of game-clinchers late, we saw the version of Barrett that Thibodeau had hoped to see more of this year.

“He’s a student of the game,” Thibodeau said of Barrett, “and he had an excellent practice [Monday]. I thought he’d have a good game.”

Barrett started the season honoring that belief, including one five-game stretch in late October and early November when he scored 20-plus points in all five, averaging 25.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, shooting 51.7 percent from the floor and 50 percent from 3. At the one-eighth pole of the season he was probably the early clubhouse favorite to keep the NBA’s Most Improved Player trophy in the Knicks family a second straight year.

(image)
RJ Barrett scored 32 point in the Knicks’ win over the Spurs on Tuesday.
USA TODAY Sports

And then the shots stopped falling.

And the confidence and swagger he carries in such great supply when things are going well started fading. And then he got sick, which weakened him a few games.

“He was knocked out pretty good,” Thibodeau said.

“It was annoying,” Barrett admitted.

After his electric start to the season, Barrett went through a 13-game slog where his scoring average plunged to 10.4 and his shooting touch all but vanished — 32.9 percent from the field, 22.4 from 3.

Tuesday, everything fell back into place. Not surprisingly, the Knicks sure resembled the best version of themselves for almost every bit of the team-high 39 minutes he spent on the floor.

(image)
RJ Barrett gets a hug from Spurs great David Robinson.
NBAE via Getty Images

“I think Julius draws so much attention,” Barrett said of the Knicks’ alpha dog, who came on in the second half and finished with 15 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. “Derrick [Rose] and [Immanuel] Quickley drive it and that leaves me wide open. I was open and I have to continue to knock them down.”

If he does, then it’s OK to start think about the Knicks in the same way we started the season thinking about them. Their recent struggles had sent Thibodeau to the drawing board, trying to figure out how to make the chess pieces of his roster fit better than they have. These Spurs are not the same version that we’ve seen most of the last quarter century, but they did come in hot, and had recently beaten the Warriors in San Francisco.

This wasn’t necessarily the place to get well, or the team to get well against.

But the Knicks dominated most of the final three quarters. Mitch Robinson, now a member of the second team, was terrific: 11 points, 14 rebounds. Alec Burks and Quickley played outstanding games.

“I was down for a couple of weeks, but I’m feeling better now,” Barrett said. “It was good to get back in the gym, it was great and to have a game like today. Hopefully that can carry on for [Wednesday].”

That would be Indianapolis, against the Pacers, the Knicks hoping to inch over .500 again. They will bring the same team we’ve seen to Indiana. But not the same old team. Barrett is feeling better. No surprise that his team is looking better, too.

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