Knicks guard RJ Barrett reacts during the second quarter against...

Knicks guard RJ Barrett reacts during the second quarter against the Nuggets at Madison Square Garden on Dec 4. Credit: Brad Penner

DETROIT — When he returned on Christmas Day after six games off, quarantined in the NBA’s health and safety protocols, RJ Barrett began his day with a three-point field goal that swished through the net at Madison Square Garden cleanly. And for a moment he might have felt as if he’d never been gone.

But he had been. And the time confined to his home, trying to find ways to work out as fatigue overwhelmed him, wasn’t left behind just because he was announced in the starting lineup.

Barrett would finish that game shooting 4-for-15. And when he played again Tuesday in Minnesota, with three more days to ready himself, he missed his first seven shots before finally converting a layup midway through the fourth quarter. He’d add another layup and a three-point field goal to finish 3-for-10 and hope again that he’d left COVID-19 behind as the Knicks headed out to play again Wednesday against the Pistons.

"Yeah, you see it," Barrett said after the game. "Just happy that coach is letting me get back into it. I’ll be fine. First couple of games just trying to find my rhythm. Trying to play within the team concepts and just find my rhythm."

Barrett, 21, is a good example of the uncertainly facing players and teams as they navigate through the health and safety protocols amid a fast-spreading outbreak of COVID-19’s latest variant. Vaccinated, young and in elite condition, Barrett still was knocked down hard by the virus. While fatigue was the main problem, getting back to form was not so simple.

"I was mostly OK," Barrett said of his time in quarantine after testing positive following the Knicks game in his hometown Toronto on Dec. 10. "I was just really tired for a couple of days, just laying down. Other than that [I] felt a little weird, but it wasn’t anything too crazy.

"I think any time you’re out for 10 days it’s going to affect you, whether you have COVID or not. So just trying to get back into shape, back into game shape. Only way you can do that is by playing, so just trying to figure it out as soon as possible. [I would] try to do pushups, sit-ups, try to do some bike stuff, whatever I could."

After a breakout season in which he shot 40.1% from three-point range and seemed ready to step into stardom, Barrett has struggled through much of this season, shooting just 39.4% overall and 33.8% from beyond the arc. He was sidelined by a non-COVID-19 illness earlier this season and with the restrictions placed on teams and with his own illnesses he has been unable to spend the time he normally would in the gym.

As a result, he has struggled on the court.

"Definitely. I need repetition, consistency, consistency getting in the gym," he said. "This season has been a little tough with illnesses and stuff. Nonetheless, I hope now I’m going to be consistently in the gym and I’m good for the rest of the season.

"Last season I was good. So I was there every night, getting back into the gym and working on my game a lot more, I’ll be good."

It’s not quite as simple as last season when the Knicks would land in a city and he and Julius Randle would gather teammates and find a gym to shoot at night. Now, with restrictions keeping the team from practicing as a team on days off and morning shootarounds conducted in ballrooms with no baskets, it’s not easy to find that rhythm.

"At least we still get shots up," Barrett said of the practice days. "We still get individual work. We kind of know what to do. We know all the plays. As long as we’re sharp individually and play as a team, we’ll be good."

Barrett finished his postgame interview, slowly picked up his bag and his drink and said to the small gathering in the news conference room, "Quick turnaround. Get some rest." He was speaking to the reporters, but could have been talking to himself.

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