As the game was falling apart for the Knicks on Wednesday night, Tom Thibodeau turned to his bench. It had produced a fast-paced attack of late, but as the game continued to get away, Thibodeau kept RJ Barrett out.
The former No. 3 overall pick didn’t get back in until 2:19 was left, with the Knicks trailing the Magic by 17 in a 107-89 loss.
The hot-hand approach has been a familiar one for Thibodeau this season, but the odd part was that the bench unit he had left in was anything but hot. Immanuel Quickley, who missed his first 11 shots of the game, played the entire fourth quarter. He didn’t connect until he picked up a steal and a breakaway dunk in the final minutes.
"We were in such a hole and you try to find a way out," Thibodeau said. "[Our bench] started to make a run and so that was basically it. I wanted to see where it could go once it got to 10, and it didn’t go anywhere."
The oddity is that this drop in minutes has not been just a one-night event for Barrett, who led the NBA in minutes played earlier this season and whom the Knicks need as the best available second option to Julius Randle.
"I can definitely do a better job of helping him out, keeping his confidence up," Randle said. "He’s always stayed confident. It’s one of those things: got to keep learning, keep growing, see what you can do better. I’ll help him out as well. He’ll be fine. He’ll be fine."
In the Knicks’ first 24 games, Barrett played less than 29 minutes just once — a 30-point win over the Celtics in which he was able to casually root on the bench players with the game far out of reach. In those 24 games, he averaged 17.8 points in 35.8 minutes.
But in the last six games, he has exceeded 29 minutes only once and has averaged 25.5 minutes per game. With the reduced minutes, his scoring has plummeted to 6.9 points per game in that six-game span.
In the first four of those, it was understandable that he saw his minutes reduced as he shot just 26.8% from the floor. But Barrett has been productive the last two games, scoring 21 points against Atlanta and contributing 15 points in 26 minutes against Orlando.
"Well, the depth is good. It’s a plus," Thibodeau said. "You get into games like [Wednesday] and it’s more you’re just searching. You get in a hole like we were, then you’re trying to find anything that can get you going. The group that was out there got going a little bit .
"Ideally, you’d like to be playing from the lead. The thing that was a challenge, I thought the starters got us off to a decent start. The defense wasn’t good, but the offense was very good to start the game. And we had an 11-point lead and it dissipated very quickly. Then we’re scrambling the whole second half."
One thing that has been a constant for Thibodeau this season: Stressing that no matter the player, whatever lineup is working at the time is the one he will be employing.
"Everyone has to sacrifice for the team," he said. "So if the second group is playing better, there will be extended minutes there. And if not, as I mentioned, sometimes it’s the starters who are going to play more.
"In the end, it all will average out. You have to put the team first, you have to put winning first."