With the game coming on the 75th anniversary of the first game played in the NBA — officially the BAA back then — and serving as a rematch of the combatants, there already was a connection between the Toronto Raptors and the Knicks.
But there is a connection that crosses borders, too, in the form of RJ Barrett, who Raptors coach Nick Nurse had hoped could help lead the national team to Olympic glory. That goal fell short, but Barrett now has emerged as one of the stars that Nurse was trying to find a way to counter.
"First of all he’s really mature for his age," Nurse said before the game at Madison Square Garden. "I think he understands what being a pro is. I think he puts in a work day and a work year. He’s pretty calculated. I probably would like to have seen him more than I saw him this summer, but he just wasn’t going to leave his workouts. Give him credit for understanding that at an early age.
"Certainly all the work he’s put in this summer is paying off. He looks fabulous out there. Looks like he’s really got control of his tempo. He’s playing the game at his tempo. When he gets the ball he’s bouncing back and doing things, he’s turning the corner when that’s there. He’s shooting the ball with confidence and he’s a willing and very good passer. He’s tough to guard."
Barrett entered this game off a career-high 35-point effort to help the Knicks to a win in New Orleans Saturday, improving the Knicks record to an NBA-best 5-1. It was the latest step forward for Barrett, who seems to have grown by leaps and bounds.
Early last season he endured an 0-for-21 stretch beyond the arc, but never stopped taking them. After tinkering in the offseason with mechanics and constant work he finished the season shooting 40.1% from three-point range. And this season he had a two-game stretch where he was a combined 1 of 12 from three, shrugged it off and has hit 9 of 15 in the last there games, including 6 of 8 against New Orleans.
But the offensive numbers ignore the part of his game that he has been focused on even more, becoming a defensive stopper. At 6-6 and strong for a 21-year-old wing, he has set goals of earning First Team All-Defensive Team. His coach doesn’t doubt him.
"He’s got a lot of talent," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He’s an elite talent. Then when you start to measure his intangibles. You look at the toughness. You look at the basketball IQ. You look at competitiveness. Those three things and he’s got a great work ethic.
"Those type of guys always get better. He has a lot of pride in what he’s doing. He’s put a lot of time into shooting, into his defense, into finishing. You just look at what he’s done from a young age, I thought he had a terrific year last year, averaging 18 points a game on a playoff team. So that’s not an easy thing to do. He got better and better as the season went along, carried it over into the summer, carried it over into the fall and is carrying it over now."
Nurse, missing his own top wings in Pascal Siakam and Scott Barnes on this night, agreed that the work Barrett puts in makes him a solid defender — or anything he wants to be.
"I think he’s a good defender," Nurse said. "I don’t know if anybody’s ever underrated him at that or not. I think he’s always been a guy that’s willing to be a two-way player and go to work at that end. I think he does it with some willingness and desire. I think he does it with some IQ and smarts. He does it not only on the ball, but off the ball. He understands the rotations and the schemes."