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Knicks 109, Bulls 104: “A little late, but progress is progress”

RJ’s the captain now.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at New York Knicks Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

There was a moment in the middle of the second quarter. Mike Breen and Clyde Frazier were discussing something innocuous. It was such a normal conversation, Clyde wasn’t even rhyming. Suddenly it was interrupted by RJ Barrett slicing through the lane, blowing past Nikola Vucevic to knife at the basket, rise, and throw down a one-handed silencing hammer. Suddenly Breen’s voice raised a fever pitch. Clyde delivered a “slicing and dicing.” Barrett floated to the floor and gave the surrounding Bulls players a death stare. For fans thirsty for something positive. Anything with a measure of grace, Barrett delivered. In his third season, where experts say a player shows you who he will be, Barrett has announced his arrival in the NBA.

What transpired after showed the impact of having your best player, a title Barrett has rightfully earned this season, impact the game, not just with skill but effort. Mitchell Robinson was handed a lob on the next possession. Then the Knicks forced a 24-second shot clock violation. Finally, fans began to see glimpses of what made last year’s squad so special when it was being led by the freight train strength of All NBA Second Team, Julius Randle.

I am exhausted from defending Carmelo Anthony. It’s no secret Melo is my favorite Knick ever. For the last decade, I’ve had to argue, mostly over beers, in defense of Melo with the man who raised me as a Knicks fan, my father. My father hated Melo’s ISO instincts and lackadaisical nuances. But Melo gave me my first playoff game win, then my first playoff series win. He was an All-Star, an MVP candidate, and wore a Knicks jersey as one of the best players in the league. With Barrett, we finally have a chance to root for the same player. To be united by a name on the back of a jersey. That’s a testament to Barrett's impact on Knicks fans and his teammates this season. He is an uniter. During a season where Knicks fans and the team has been more divided than ever, that’s a godsend.

It was contagious. Alec Burks, the much-maligned “point guard,” had 12 consecutive points in the second quarter, most of those coming off passes by Barrett. He hit a layup, a turn around fade away, then a pull-up three. Even Evan Fournier started to rush to double team, forcing two turnovers. The defensive intensity rose as players began to swarm the ball. Especially Sims, who seems unfazed at who he is matched up against, bringing the same knack for rebounding and strong box-outs to the rotation.

The Knicks had retaken the lead by the time Barrett barreled to the bucket for a one-handed floater, which ended up in an and-1 (where he made the free throw). Ever since the All-Star break, Barrett has been averaging 25.6 PPG. He’s silenced the fair-weather fans who screamed, “He only goes left!” by becoming unstoppable in that direction. He’s mixed it up enough with his right hand to warrant modified coverage, but he has learned to use his strength and ball control to barrel through defenders as he drives with his strong hand.

Meanwhile, Randle entered the second half 0-5, “overthinking,” as Clyde euphemized. Barrett dominated down low, busting out the halftime gate with back-to-back and 1’s. What do we have here? Can this kid be our savior? The one we have thought to trade for, to sign, every summer for the past 10 summers? The one we prayed Amar’e Stoudemire would be? The one we wished Melo would be? Can Barrett be the first piece in a championship puzzle? What he is for sure is something to get behind.

Barrett had games, predicting his elevation. One can remember the early New Orleans game where he broke out of his shooting slump. But this game, he showed it all. He tried his damnedest to get Randle going, finding him in transition for open threes. But Randle couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. By the end of the third quarter, the Garden faithful chanted for Obi Toppin. But Coach Thibodeau showed just how long his leash is for his beguiled “star.” He fought for offensive rebounds, sometimes with too much aggression, leading to a technical.

As the third quarter approached, the Bulls fought back to cut it to six with an array of mid-range jumpers, their expertise. It was one of the first times in recent memory, where Randle and Fournier sat, and the youngsters came in, where the Knicks saw a lead cut.

As the fourth quarter opened, the Knicks needed a hero to keep the momentum going with Randle playing like shit. Barrett caught a pass off a Sims offensive rebound to nail a three. Barrett returned the favor by finding Sims on the next play, where he was fouled at the rim. If Sims can give us this kind of activity next season, the Knicks could have the two-headed center monster they envisioned for Robinson and Noel, seeing that the front office resigns Robinson. Clyde lamented Sims's effort with a crafty “Splendor on the Glass” as a nod to both Sims and provocative playwright William Inge. Clyde being Clyde, he would reuse it later on in the fourth. It’s been nice to see Robinson’s advanced offensive awareness this season. However, it doesn’t appear directly connected to his contract situation. He seems more invested in play-calling and being in a position for offensive rebounds and lobs.

It’s always a tinge of fear entering the fourth quarter against the Bulls with a minimal lead, seeing as DeRozan leads the NBA in fourth-quarter points. He had a nifty and-1 off a mid-range pull-up, as only he can. I can’t recall a player more adept at drawing fouls off mid-range jumpers than DeRozan. Perhaps Richard Hamilton? He had another turn-around jumper in isolation a few possessions later.

It’s comforting to know with the young core seeing increased playing time, turnovers are not increasing in parallel. Breen reminded us midway through the fourth the Knicks had only six turnovers for the game and one in the second half. Miles McBride and Immanuel Quickley have proven they can take control of the ball as lead guards. The future is bright.

Barrett earned his 24th and 25th points off a pull-up three out of a timeout. DeRozan is an excellent comp for the young Canuck. Both are strong, multi-positional defenders. Barrett has a long way to go to reach DeRozan’s elite mid-range game, but there are similarities in DeRozan’s calm demeanor, preferring to let his game do the talking. Even Barrett said at the end of the game, DeRozan’s footwork and fourth-quarter heroics are something he wants to duplicate. Speaking of which, his fade away, and-1 at the 4-minute mark was a thing of beauty—vintage DeRozan.

In the last two seasons, we would have seen Barrett divert to Randle in the fourth quarter. Not anymore. He is taking it upon himself to get to the rack and draw fouls, which he did to draw a foul on Alex Caruso with almost a minute left in the game. Equally impressive once he does, he is hitting his free throws. It was a great back and forth between DeRozan and Barrett in crunch time. Even though the Knicks will likely miss the playoffs, this felt like the closer we would get to that feeling. Especially when Burks hit a three to give the journeyman back-to-back clutch plays at the end of games. Kudos to Immanuel Quickley for the excellent court vision and awareness to find Burks in the corner after collapsing the defense around his penetration.

The Knicks finished off the Bulls with what was almost the platonic ideal lineup: RJ taking the most shots, Burks as the combo guard, IQ as the — dare we say it — point guard. Sure, Obi should probably have finished the game over Randle. He earned it. And it’s not like Randle seemed to relish the team’s victory.

But those are concerns for another day. The Knicks are winning. RJ is officially a 20 PPG scorer. As P&T’er Walt Clyde Phraser put it, progress is progress.