In what should have never been a nail-biter to begin with, RJ Barrett carried the Knicks to a close 123-117 win against the depleted Pelicans squad. The Knicks improved to 5-1.
Barrett led the Knicks in the three main box score categories with a career-high 35 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists, making 12 of his 18 shots from the field, 6 of 8 three point attempts, and 5 of 6 free throws.
The Pelicans were without Barrett’s Duke teammate Zion Williamson, who has not played this season, and their leading scorer in Brandon Ingram. While that should spell out a Knicks blowout victory, NBA games are never that simple—especially for a team whose lone loss is to a Magic team they easily decimated two nights earlier.
The Knicks were scorching to start the game, making four straight threes with a tough Barrett floater in between to start off 14-3. They largely kept up their offense for the rest of the quarter, scoring 34 and making 6-12 threes, but could not manage to put the Pelicans away early.
While Mitchell Robinson threw down a lob in the quarter after making two free throws the play before, he could not stop Jonas Valančiūnas on the other end. Valančiūnas, who was averaging 20.5 points and 17 rebounds in the four games prior, had 12 and 4 against Robinson in the quarter and 18 and five in the half.
Kira Lewis Jr. also gave the Pelicans some energy off the bench, scoring 8 of his 12 points in the last two minutes of the quarter to make it 34-28 going into the second. Unanswered scores from Burks, Quickley, and Gibson gave the Knicks a 44-28 lead four minutes in, but they could not get a larger lead. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes, and Devonte’ Graham scored three straight to keep the Pelicans within reach as Immanuel Quickley continued to struggle with his shot.
Quickley was erratic with the shots he was taking and not coming close on some of his four misses in five attempts, eliciting concerns of a sophomore slump or perhaps something more, though he was prone to prolonged cold stretches last year as well. The sophomore is now averaging just 5.2 points on 28.6% shooting, and played just four minutes in the second half, during which he did not shoot.
Obi Toppin, who’s thrived early on, did not get many opportunities to continue to, going 0-1 in his one shot of the half and game.
Walker and Barrett checked back in to give the Knicks another cushion and provide heroics, which would be a theme throughout the game. The veteran Walker continued to look more spry, drawing two free throws, and Barrett, who had 15 in the first half, continued to demonstrate the strides he’s taken as a shooter, knocking a three of Walker’s dime.
A Randle jumper and two straight finds from Barrett to Robinson, including an alley-oop identical to the one in the first quarter, caused the Pelicans to take a timeout with a little under 5 minutes to go in the half with the score at 55-39.
Those were Robinson’s only makes of the game in a rather poor game, though his 3-3 shooting gave him three straight games without a miss and brought him up to an unbelievable 88 field goal percentage on the year.
The Pelicans answered back by scoring on every single offensive possession off the backs of Valančiūnas and Devonte’ Graham to end the quarter as the Knicks looked lost on that end. At the half, the Knicks led 63-59, but it was a result no Knicks player or fan was likely proud of.
This has become a bit of a pattern for the Knicks now, blowing a six-point lead in the last seconds of the Celtics game to let the game go to overtime, and blowing big leads in their wins against Chicago and Philadelphia. While it’s easy to attribute this to playing down to the competition and getting complacent, which can certainly play a role, it’s more likely the defense in general is an issue, at least in the early season.
The Knicks identity as a good defensive, bad offensive team has swapped from last year so far. Last season, the Knicks ranked fourth in defensive rating and 22nd in offensive rating. This year, they’re at 21st in defensive rating and 2nd in offensive through six games. While the defense will likely shore up after Walker and Fournier get more acquainted, neither were considered positives on that end to begin with.
The biggest culprit however, especially tonight, was Julius Randle, who hardly followed his man in rookie Herb Jones off the ball. Randle could not get it going offensively either, scoring just ten points on 4-9 shooting with four assists. Despite the thriving Knicks offense and team, Randle is having a down year from last season, shooting just 41% from the field and 33% from three after shooting 46% and 41% respectively last season.
While some of that may just be an early season slump, Randle seems a bit disengaged and perhaps even out of shape after a supernova All-NBA season last year.
Fournier and Hart exchanged threes to start the second half off, and then the RJ Barrett show began, surprisingly parallel to the Knicks Almost Blow It show. Barrett scored or assisted on the Knicks’ next five scores. On two straight possessions, he scored on smooth drives to the hoop for strong finishes, arguably an even more impressive development than his step-back three pointer on the following third straight possession.
On the other end, Hart made a three and Valančiūnas continued to feast, keeping it a six-point game four minutes into the quarter despite Barrett’s explosion.
Barrett continued his takeover despite the pushback, making a strong lefty finish directly over Valančiūnas. Two possessions later, he made a similar drive, recognized the defense was drawn to him, and found a wide open Gibson under the hoop for the assist.
Barrett had six assists to one turnover on the game, demonstrating a true level of maturity to use a career-high scoring game to find open teammates off the additional defensive attention rather than forcing shots (a la Frank Ntilikina dropping ten assists in his career-high 20 point game, may he Rest In Kidd).
Fournier made a three to extend the lead to 13 with 5:25 minutes in the quarter, but New Orleans answered back with scores from Jones and Valančiūnas.
The other newbie in Walker made a three of his own to give the Knicks an 83-71 lead with a little under four minutes left, but the Pelicans fired back with two of their own unanswered triples from Tomas Satoransky and Trey Murphy.
A Lewis layup made it a four-point game with a little under two minutes in the quarter, but Rose answered back with an impossible contested floater, and Alec Burks split a pair of free throws in the final seconds to keep it 88-83 going into the fourth.
The Knicks got off to an early start off the continued scoring of Rose and Burks. Toppin made a free throw off a Rose dime to give the Knicks a nine-point advantage early in the quarter.
Again, the Pelicans came fighting back as the spry Jaxon Hayes threw down an alley-oop and then made two free throws the following possession, keeping it at 84-89 with 8:51 left. Walker and Barrett stepped up again, Walker getting his fourth steal of the game on the inexperienced Lewis Jr., leading to yet another Barrett three.
Murphy and Fournier exchanged a pair of free throws before the Frenchman extended the lead to 11 with seven minutes left with his fifth three of the contest. Fournier finished with 19 in the game, though he did not score the rest of the way.
Graham, who finished with 17 points and 8 assists, answered with a three of his own, but RJ again drew a foul and made a pair of free throws.
The next play, Walker would again get into the paint for another floater, though Graham again answered back with two free throws to keep it a 106-96 game with 5:11 remaining. Randle’s heroics were again nowhere to be found and he would essentially throw the ball away on the next possession out of an isolation.
Barrett, however, continued his own heroics, and he confidently barreled down the hoop for another layup off a Graham miss the next play, giving him 26.
The Pelicans scored two straight off an Alexander-Walker drive and a ridiculous Valančiūnas putback dunk to make 108-100 with 3:46 left, but Kemba Walker confidently nailed a high-arcing three with the shot clock winding down the next play down.
Herb Jones caught Randle and the Knicks sleeping, cutting for another easy layup with 3:11 remaining, to which Randle answered back by isolating against him for a hideous overshot air-balled baseline jumper, which led to Jones beating him down the court for another layup. While he did not take too many shots, it was an awful shot to take in general, especially in crunch time, and certainly when Walker and Barrett were both hot.
The Knicks called timeout to stop the bleeding with 2:45 remaining, but Fournier missed a jumper and Alexander-Walker splashed a three to make it 111-107 with 2:16 left.
Walker came down and missed a pullup three, and then Randle yet again lost track of the second-rounder Jones, who would beat him down the court for an and-one layup over Robinson, making it a two-point game.
Again, Barrett saved the day by confidently stepping into a pull-up, top of the key, three to put the Knicks up 114-109 with 1:39 left in the game. Graham came back down the court the next play, converting an impossible and-1 floater to keep it a one possession game with 1:28 left.
RJ Barrett was unbothered. He came down the court again, and with all the defensive attention on him, found Taj Gibson for a slam. After Graham missed a three on the other end, Barrett received a screen from Gibson and drained a beautiful three pointer to ice the game when he was given space at 119-112 with 44 seconds left.
The Pelicans were then forced to play the foul game, bringing Walker up to 19 points, and Barrett up to a career-high 35, only fitting he would do so on free throws that plagued him early on his career and this season.
The Knicks didn’t look like the team they want to be tonight, but RJ Barrett certainly did. As P&T’er Knicksfan84 noted, the young Barrett is becoming a man — perhaps the man — for the Knicks. If Barrett can continue playing like this and the team find its stride, there’s no telling how far this team will go.