After he started the game Tuesday against Charlotte with a three-pointer, RJ Barrett lost his touch. He kept shooting but misfired on seven consecutive shots. As both teams were on fire, piling up a total of 126 points in the first half, Barrett was the odd one out.
But in the locker room at halftime Julius Randle came up to him with a simple message.
"Most definitely. He told me in the locker room," Barrett said. "He said, ‘Big second half, "9." ’ "
And if he provided an emotional assist in the locker room, when he took the floor for the third quarter, Randle continued to provide aid to Barrett. He fired a pass to Barrett in the corner and the 20-year-old wing calmly drained a three-pointer. Then Randle barreled into the lane and turned, finding Barrett again near the top of the key for another three-pointer. Confidence boosted, Barrett piled up 18 points in the quarter, converting 6 of 7 shots, including 4-for-4 from beyond the arc, as the Knicks took control of the game.
Barrett was basically raised in the game with his father, Rowan, having played at St. John’s before heading for a long career overseas and now one of the heads of Canada’s national team. But as the youngest player on the Knicks in his second season, he still has his moments when he needs a boost, and this season the veterans have been happy to provide that guidance.
"You've got to know that 48 minutes, that's a lot of basketball," Derrick Rose said. "First half, you see how it was going, he got the scorer’s mentality. At halftime, whenever I get a chance, I try to get him, get out of his own head, get up his own way and let him know, don't get frustrated.
"Whenever he does miss shots because he's a perfectionist, so whenever I see him down, I try to talk to him as much as possible. In the second half, he came out, told him to be aggressive and his shot’s going to fall . . . It’ll be like that sometimes. You not going to have a perfect game, but as long as you play hard on the defensive end, it gives us a chance to win anyway. So offensively, when you're on a good team like this it’s going to come and go, but defense and effort and play with urgency, that's a staple. Always has to be there."
Barrett confessed that Rose was right: Perfection is a goal, as impossible as it may be. And that does get in his head.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah," Barrett said, shaking his head. "I am that. I will say that. I hate missing. I hate when things are not perfect, especially if I do everything right and I miss the shot or I do everything right and then I turn the ball over or something. I hate when things aren’t perfect. But D-Rose is always on me. He’s like, ‘Forget about it, keep moving, just go out there and don’t think, just play.’
"I feel like my dad has instilled that in me at a young age. It definitely is a big help because it’s a long game. Also, having the team, the coaches, the staff that we have, they always encourage you to keep going. Whenever someone is down they always pick them up. Whenever someone is up we tell them to keep going. So we really have a great, unselfish unit. That definitely helps your mental strength more than anything."
While Randle has earned the accolades this season as an All-Star and the most recent Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Barrett has quietly emerged as a reliable sidekick. After struggling with his shot in his rookie season and enduring an 0-for-21 stretch beyond the arc in the opening days of this season, on the season he is converting 39.1% from three-point range, including 55% over the last 12 games.
"Just getting into rhythm," Barrett said. "Teammates are doing a great job of finding me — whether it’s Julius, D-Rose, Reggie [Bullock], anybody. They’re just finding me there and I’m able to knock it down. Also, I just work on it. I work on it every day, I worked on it all summer, two, three times a day, come back at night to shoot. It’s a lot of work I put into it."
"He’s steady," Randle said. "He’s never going to lack confidence. He misses shots, I tell him keep shooting, keep being aggressive. I told him at halftime, you’ve got a big second half coming and that’s exactly what he did. He was ready, ready to shoot, ready to make plays, whatever it was. That’s the growth from Year One to Year Two for him. He’s done an amazing job for us and we need him to do more for us to keep winning."