NEW ORLEANS — When the teams cleared the floor and headed to the locker room, a pre-Halloween halftime show took their place and had contestants eating worms, placing hissing cockroaches all over their bodies and kissing a boa constrictor. The crew at Smoothie King Center took care to place a tarp over the court just in case any of the fans couldn’t keep down the "candy."
It might have been a good idea to place the tarp over the court during play, too, just in case Tom Thibodeau couldn’t stomach what he was watching.
A 16-point lead against an undermanned New Orleans Pelicans squad was cut to four by halftime because of the same issues the Knicks had displayed in their only loss this season, also against a team (Orlando) likely bound for the lottery. There were lazy passes, lackadaisical jogs back on defense and the appearance that the one-point win over the Bulls on Thursday that put them in a tie for first in the Eastern Conference meant they’d already secured a title.
Although the Knicks led by 13 in the third quarter, the lead was just five heading into the final period, and after they went up by 12 in the fourth quarter, the Pelicans twice drew within two.
In the end, the Knicks got just enough — almost all of it from RJ Barrett — to secure a 123-117 win over the Pelicans that lifted them to 5-1, still tied for the top spot in the conference. They also improved to 3-0 on the road.
With the Knicks leading 114-112, Barrett slipped a pretty wraparound pass in the lane to Taj Gibson for an open dunk and hit a three-pointer to make it 119-112. He then hit three of four free throws to put the Knicks ahead 122-114. He finished with a career-high 35 points — 16 in the fourth quarter — eight rebounds and six assists, shooting 6-for-8 from three-point range and 12-for-18 overall.
Barrett, who often seemed like one of the few Knicks playing at full speed, almost singlehandedly staved off the upset.
"That was Thibs," Barrett said of his takeover of the game. "He was running those plays for me in the end. That’s kind of reading the defense. That’s the type of player I am. I was happy I was able to show that today. Just trying to read the defense and what they were giving us."
"He was terrific — all-around game, start to finish," Thibodeau said. "Clutch shots, great hustle, great effort. Rebounding the ball. Tough shots. Got downhill. We needed it. They played hard as heck. And we knew they would. And we have a lot to work on."
Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier each scored 19 points for the Knicks, who shot 19-for-33 from three-point range. But Julius Randle just didn’t look like himself, finishing with 10 points, six rebounds and four assists and taking only nine shots.
Mitchell Robinson, playing in his hometown with a contingent of family and friends in attendance, had eight points and five rebounds and shot 3-for-3 from the field. He is 22-for-25 from the field this season.
Jonas Valanciunas had 27 points and 14 rebounds for the Pelicans, who were playing without Zion Williamson (fractured left foot).
In the end, it came down to Barrett. "He knows he’s good," Thibodeau said. "He never questioned himself. And my thing is when you’re open, you shoot. As long as you shoot it good, that’s all I’m worried about. Is it the right shot? Did you shoot it well? You can shoot it well, it can go in and out and it’s a great shot, or you can sometimes shoot it poorly and it goes in and it’s a tough shot. So just take the right shots.
"He’s playing an all-around game. And the thing, even when he goes downhill, I think people don’t realize how big and strong he is. He can take contact and finish through contact. And so he’s getting more comfortable with it. He works at it. You can’t say enough about him."