RJ Barrett has had his struggles this season, the same as Julius Randle. But he has avoided the attention — and blame — that has rained down on Randle from the stands at Madison Square Garden.
On Tuesday, maybe for the first time this season, Barrett was on center stage at the Garden. He heard his name chanted by the fans, even when Randle was standing on the foul line.
Barrett clearly was the hero for that night as he scored 32 points — 19 in the first quarter — and helped the Knicks to a much-needed win over the Pacers.
"It was cool," Barrett said. "Definitely in the Garden, hearing the crowd chant your name is a lot of fun. Blessed I was able to do that and hear that."
But it’s still a little odd. Like Randle, Barrett’s offensive numbers have dipped this season and raised the question of whether last season — with the empty arenas and erratic preparation for many teams — was an outlier.
Barrett shot 40.2% and 32.0% from three-point range as a rookie, then jumped those numbers to 44.1% and 40.1% last season.
But this season he has shot just 41.0% overall and 32.9% from beyond the arc and seen his scoring average dip to 15.7 points per game from 17.6 last season.
You could point to reasons why his shooting has suffered. He has been unable to get in the gym as much as he did last season because of an early-season illness, then his own bout with COVID, and limitations on team practice sessions.
Since sitting out six games while in the NBA’s health and safety protocols, Barrett has slowly worked his way back into form. In his first four games back, he shot just 38.6% overall and was 4-for-24 from beyond the arc, but in the last two games heading into Thursday night’s meeting with Boston at the Garden, he was 2-for-5 from long range in each.
Perhaps more important, he got to the rim with the fire that he did last season. Barrett scored 51 points in the two games.
"Just attacking the rim," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "When he and Julius are attacking the rim, we’re a different team. The more that we can get to that, the better it is.
"I think if you’re settling and you don’t force the defense to collapse, we don’t move the ball, then we’re going to take tough shots. But if you move the ball, you attack, attack the defense before they’re set, force the defense to collapse, and then good shots will come off that."
Getting downhill to the rim has not been a problem for Barrett, but playmaking out of those plays barreling to the rim is the next phase. Entering Thursday, he had three assists in each of the previous three games — the first time this season that he has had at least three in three consecutive games.
"RJ’s strength has always been his size and ability to get downhill," Thibodeau said. "And as he gets stronger, he’s finishing through contact better. The shooting I think — he’ll get his rhythm and he’ll make shots. Just keep working at it every day.
"The game tells you what to do. So when the second defender comes, we always say attack the rim and then make a rim read. If the second or third defender are there, then spray it out, hit the open man, trust the pass, play off the pass."