RJ Barrett was sidelined for a third straight game Monday, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he sat out Wednesday’s final game ahead of the All-Star break to give him time to rest and fully heal his sprained left ankle.
But for at least at long as he is sidelined, there will be questions for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau about why Barrett didn't rest an extra 30 seconds in Denver on Feb. 8, when he suffered the injury.
The Knicks were never really in the game against the Nuggets, falling behind by as many as 27 points on the way to a 132-115 loss. It was the second night of a back-to-back set after a loss in Utah. Barrett played nearly 50 minutes in Los Angeles to start the road trip three nights earlier, then almost 43 in Utah the night before the Denver game.
Barrett, who played 34 minutes and 46 seconds in Denver, had left the game and some starters came back midway through the fourth quarter when the Knicks cut the deficit in half. Barrett didn’t get back on the floor until 3:56 remained and the deficit was 15 — upped to 17 as he entered with a pair of Nuggets free throws.
With 51 seconds left, Thibodeau threw in the towel — for most of the team. He pulled Julius Randle, Evan Fournier and Alec Burks, subbing in players from the end of the bench in Miles McBride and Jericho Sims along with Obi Toppin.
Immanuel Quickley still was in the game and so was Barrett. Quickley misfired on a three-pointer with 24 seconds left and Barrett went down to the floor near the Knicks' bench.
He had stepped on the foot of the Nuggets' Davon Reed, who had just entered the game a little more than a minute earlier.
"You know, if it stayed at 20, we probably wouldn't have brought the starters back," Thibodeau said before the Knicks took on the Oklahoma City Thunder at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. "They were going to sit the quarter. but once you get to 13, you get it to 10. You got four minutes to go. You want to take a shot. We had RJ at [power forward]. So if you get a run there, get it inside 10, you’ve got a chance to win it. So there's a lot of things. The thing I love about RJ is that he wants to be out there as a big part of his development."
There is no doubt that the 21-year-old Barrett wants to play. He has taken a next step this season, and his play has been one of the Knicks' few bright spots. He was averaging 25.0 points per game in his past four games when he got hurt.
A fair argument from the coach would be that these injuries can happen at any time. It could have come in the first minute — or less than a minute earlier when both teams cleared the benches. Mitchell Robinson and Cam Reddish were sidelined in the fourth quarter Saturday in Portland after suffering minor ankle injuries earlier in the game.
Asked if he has any regrets, Thibodeau said, "No, no. You don't work backwards. There's you know, different points. You look at the score, time, where you can, if you can make a run, then you take the shot at it. So that's what we did."