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Knicks 119, Thunder 97: “RJ!”

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The Knicks started slow, but finally started looking like themselves in the second half

NBA: New York Knicks at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

This game had me really worried in the first half.

The Knicks came out sluggish and they weren’t really moving the ball. They fell behind the very shorthanded Oklahoma City Thunder — most notably missing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — by as many as 11 points in the first half.

I’ll just avoid talking about that at all, though, because the second half completely made any and all bad vibes go away.

(Special shoutout to Immanuel Quickley, though, who helped bring the Knicks back to end the first half and enter halftime with a 56-54 lead after he scored 12 points in 12 minutes.)

So, the second half. Tom Thibodeau... made a change to his starting lineup? Yeah, it was weird. After starting Frank Ntilikina and playing him five minutes in the first half before pulling him, Thibs decided to finally give a Quickley/RJ Barrett/Julius Randle “starting” lineup a look. Boy, was that ever a good idea.

I’ll preface this recap of the second half with our quote of the day from DWilTheCouncilman: “RJ!”

RJ, indeed. The Knicks’ second-year stud (who’s only 20 years old, I might remind you) poured in 22 points in the second half, breaking his previous career-high of 28 points and FINALLY scoring over 30 for the first time in his career, settling on 32.

To get there, he did a little bit of everything. He scored from deep, ending his afternoon at 3-6 from three:

What’s most impressive about RJ’s emergence as a 3-point shooter lately is that he’s hitting from all over the place. Look at his spray chart for the last 15 games from NBA Stats:

That’s absolute porn. He’s not just shooting well from the corners, he’s also hitting threes above the break. Pretty much the only area he’s not completely on fire from is right at the top of the 3-point line, which isn’t a space he occupies all that much, anyway.

Anyway, RJ kept going on his road to 32 in many other ways than just shooting threes. He continued to show vastly improved finishing around the rim, flashing both improved body control and touch around the rim, as well as elite change of pace skills to free himself up:

I don’t want to jump the gun and get too excited, but RJ’s development curve the last couple of months has been less of a curve and more of a line pointed up at a 90 degree angle. If you start at the moment RJ’s 0-21 stretch from three ended through Thursday’s game in Milwaukee (AKA, from the sixth game of the season until present), RJ is shooting .465/.406/.721 this season.

If his finishing keeps progressing along with his shooting, and he can find the floor more with Immanuel Quickley (a legitimate spot-up threat that clears the paint for him) and less with Elfrid Payton (who may as well not even be on the court outside of the 3-point line), then he’s going to have so much more space to operate and continue thriving.

In the midst of RJ hosting his masterclass, he and Immanuel Quickley spent most of the third quarter trading buckets. RJ had 13 of his 32 in the third, while IQ had nine of his 21. I couldn’t blame Thibs at all for playing RJ the whole third quarter and Quickley for 10:41 — it was beautiful basketball that not only featured the two of them scoring, but setting the table for one another.

The fourth quarter rolled around then, and that’s the point that Julius Randle decided it was time for him to casually notch a triple-double. Randle scored 13 points, grabbed three rebounds, and threw three assists in the final frame to put the final touches on a 26-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist triple double. It was particularly encouraging because Al Horford had kinda given Randle the business in the first half, and if the Knicks are going to be in any way able to compete in their next two games (at Brooklyn on Monday, at Philly on Tuesday in a back-to-back), they’re going to need Randle to be in peak All-Star form.

And that was that. The Knicks turned it on in the second half and put away a team that they really needed to beat before a tough couple games. It’s cool to see that the Knicks are no longer the “crappy team that puts up a fight in the first half and takes an early lead but ultimately gets crushed” and instead are the team that’s “just too good to lose to a team that’s that bad.”

Notes

— I mostly highlighted RJ’s second half because it was the true tour de force in this game, but he had some great looks in the first half as well, none more impressive than this move to create some space for a layup inside and finish with his off hand under the hoop:

— Randle’s triple-double was extremely casual in nature. I didn’t even realize he was flirting with one until Mike Breen announced partway through the third quarter that Randle was already at 14 points, seven rebounds, seven assists. I also said Horford gave Julius some trouble early, but even so, Randle dropped 14 on 50% shooting in the first half. It’s good to see him back to effortlessly dominating games.

— The Thunder’s young core gives off some pretty heavy “right now, you have to talk yourself into it” vibes other than Shai. Theo Maledon is really young but you can see the outline of a pretty good lead guard there, Aleksej Pokusevski was a favorite of mine in the 2020 draft but looks like he needs about 50 cheeseburgers a day for the next three years to get up to NBA weight for his size, Lu Dort looks like a stud role player. Kind of reminds me of the Knicks’ core for a while. The difference being, of course, that the Thunder have about 5000 chances to find themselves a superstar in the draft coming up in the next six years or so.

— I was fully on board with Frank starting, but he was not that good in this game and needed to get benched. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone go from “starting the game” to “playing garbage time minutes with Obi Toppin and Theo Pinson” in the same 48 minutes, but that’s just sorta how it goes in Frank Land. If Elfrid and Derrick Rose continue to be out on Monday against Brooklyn, perhaps Frank can still redeem himself and keep a spot in the rotation.

— That said, it’s time for Immanuel Quickley to start (and I say that regardless of if Elf or Rose are healthy by next game, even). It was time a while ago, but now it really is. He’s actually been looking worse with the bench lately, to my eye looking like he doesn’t necessarily trust his teammates and resorting to chucking shots for himself as a result. That all changed in this game when he was playing with RJ and Randle. Those three really make some beautiful music together.

— Nerlens Noel has no hands. There was this one sequence in the second half that was a beautiful display of passing, and, well, I’ll just let you see for yourself:

That got scored a “bad pass” turnover to Randle, by the way. Not pictured: the four or five other passes before this clip was clipped, too. But, such is the Nerlens Noel exprience.

— Alec Burks had 15 and Reggie Bullock had 14, but I wouldn’t call this a great game for either. Burks had heavy JR Smith energy with his shot selection, particularly in the first half, and Bullock only hit four of his 11 attempts from deep when it felt like he should have hit about eight. But Bullock was a team-high +23 and Burks was a +15, so what do I know.

That’s it for this game. There’s more to talk about, but not any more than I feel like talking about. I just wanna bask in the light of the Knicks’ All-Star and two best young players going off against a bad team. Be sure to check out The Strickland for MMiranda’s recap of this one too!