As the NBA trade deadline ticked to the end Thursday, there was mystery, maybe even in the Knicks’ front office, about whether they could find an opportunity to snag a star to place beside Julius Randle. But the price was not right, and they let the deadline go by with just a minor bit of roster tinkering.
Hours later, RJ Barrett reminded the Knicks and their fans that perhaps that piece is already in place.
On a night when the Knicks were not at their best — actually, for a half, they might have been at their worst, considering the performance and the opponent, a Washington Wizards squad depleted by injuries and trades — Barrett rescued them, not just with his play but also with his emotion and energy.
It was a night that provided a timely reminder that the second-year wing, who is only 20, might be growing into the sort of player the Knicks can build around.
"I just love the way he’s worked all year," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "You could see his confidence growing. He’s learning every day. He’s doing a lot of great things for the team. And I think the floor game has really expanded. He’s starting to make plays, he’s seeing the game, finishing a lot better. His all-around play. The way he was able to stick to it and just keep going. We got great leadership from him."
Barrett had 24 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and three steals, but it wasn’t the numbers as much as the way he did it.
With the Knicks trailing all game long, by as many as 17 points and with Randle headed to the bench to nurse a sore leg, the Knicks were down by 13 in the final seconds of the third quarter. Immanuel Quickley misfired on a three-pointer and Barrett grabbed the rebound, putting up a shot that fell off the rim. But he quickly rose up again, grabbed the rebound and put in an acrobatic shot just before the buzzer.
The usually stoic Barrett pumped his fists and repeatedly shouted "Let’s go!" loud enough to hear in nearly empty Madison Square Garden. The message seemed to get across. The Knicks looked like a different team in the fourth quarter, scoring 39 points and coming back for a 106-102 victory.
"I was trying, trying to get the team pumped up, myself pumped up," Barrett said. "We had to fight. I knew we could get that win. We all believed it. Very glad that we went out and got this one."
He pulled the Knicks even with 4:45 left with a steal and fast-break layup, drawing a foul on Bradley Beal and still managing to finish for a three-point play. Randle was back in the game by then, helping to finish off the win despite a quiet night in the boxscore (13 points).
"I didn’t necessarily have things going," he said, "but for RJ to step up was huge."
"We had great momentum," Barrett said. "We had great minutes from everybody . . . Really happy that as a collective unit we did this all together. You know, like I said, everybody can step up . . . We got each other’s back. We’ve got his back."