clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Flowers for RJ Barrett

Mea Culpa.

New York Knicks v Washington Wizards Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

Evidently, RJ Barrett’s career postseason production has been more impressive than I realized. Tommy Beer surprised me with this one:

Perhaps the time has come to reconsider my thoughts about Rowan Alexander Barrett, Jr.

During the regular season, his inconsistent play infuriated some Knicks fans (the terrible long-range shooting, the mediocre defense). When the lights are the brightest, though, the former Blue Devil has brought his A-game.

The 2022-23 season was rough for RJ statistically. Sure, he averaged about 20 points per game and five rebounds. Those are fine numbers. The shooting percentages are where things sting—he went 43% from the field and a career-worst 31% from beyond the arc (on 5.3 attempts).

This postseason, though, RJ has stepped up offensively. For instance, he was a +21 in the Round One close-out game versus Cleveland. He had played well throughout the series and capped it with a 21-point game in which he converted more than half his field goal attempts and went 2-of-4 from deep.

This week, his 24 points helped to save New York’s bacon in Tuesday’s must-win Round Two, Game Two victory over the Miami Heat. He shot 5-of-9 from three-town . . . and rode the pine through a crucial stretch of the fourth quarter.

“Look, RJ has played terrific for us. Sometimes you need a different matchup. So when we got the matchup and then we got going, we got into a little bit of a rhythm, so we wanted to ride it out,” said Coach Tom Thibodeau after the game. So that explains it.

Not only has RJ’s offense improved, but so has his D.

In his fourth NBA campaign, RJ recorded a defensive rating of 117.7. For context, in the regular season, Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson, Jr. rated 106.6; Miami’s Bam Adebayo was 110.9.

Across seven playoff games, RJ has improved upon his defensive stats. His 2023 postseason rating is 110.7, whereas Bam Adebayo has increased to 112.6 in the Playoffs. Simply put, when the competition got harder, RJ got better.

The Knicks and Heat will meet in Miami on Saturday for Game Three of their semi-finals series. These two tenacious teams would rather die than lose. As such, free throws could decide who advances to the Eastern Conference Finals.

From the charity stripe in Game One, victorious Miami converted 23-of-29 (79%); New York, 12-of-20 (60%).

Game Two’s winner New York made 21-of-30 (70%); Miami, 12-of-17 (71%).

Those two games were won by seven and six points respectively. All hail The Extender!

In the first contest, RJ went to the line eight times and shot 63%; in the next, he hit 60% of five attempts. New York’s formula for success against Cleveland included letting the mad Canadian go berserk in the paint. Erik Spoelstra recognized that, so Miami has clogged the lane like my bathroom toilet when all my kids are home. Tough sledding!

Improving the team’s floor spacing would help Barrett pressure the rim.

To achieve better spacing, Tom Thibodeau will have to pair RJ more with Quentin Grimes (career 38% from deep) and less with Josh Hart (2-of-8 from long this series). The result should be an increase in high-percentage shots for RJ, as well as more free throw opportunities. Whether Barrett makes those freebies . . . that’s always a coin toss. Does Drew Hanlen treat free throw woes?

I’ve slagged Mr. Maple here before and felt conflicted about it. He is my son Rowan’s favorite player (for obvious reasons). The Knicks drafted Barrett third, and his physical gifts justify some elevated expectations. His potential was so exciting, I bought a jersey. I guzzled the Kool-Aid.

Over this past season, my doubts about RJ came much more often and more irrefutably. These ill-notions were exacerbated by rumors that our small forward had been a sticking point in the failed trade for Donovan Mitchell, who had a fantastic season in Cleveland.

But this postseason, RJ has given my heart joy.

Part of that joy comes from my favorite sports team winning games in which Barrett contributes meaningfully. Some of the joy is the thrill of watching a young athlete begin to master his craft. A bit comes from envisioning RJ’s future success with the franchise.

And much of this joy has come from realizing that my initial instincts were not wrong about this kid. I just lost perspective on the big picture, perhaps. Got impatient. It’s a bummer to be human sometimes.

So, my hat is off. Here is your bouquet, RJ. Now go take your talents to South Beach and beat the snot out of Miami.