The mood inside Madison Square Garden was very different Thursday night.
The Knicks pulled off a 106-104 win over the Miami Heat, and RJ Barrett, who was benched by head coach Tom Thibodeau down the stretch in New York’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, played a big part in the victory.
After Tuesday’s loss, Barrett, who has been accessible to the media throughout his NBA tenure, simply refused to speak. Again, Thursday was very different.
“Hello everybody, I’m talking to you guys today,” Barrett joked as he arrived at Thursday’s postgame meeting with the media.
There was a lot to be jokey about. Not only did the Knicks beat an opponent that is ahead of them in the standings, but Barrett scored a team-high 30 points, and added eight rebounds and four assists.
Those who watched Tuesday’s game against the Lakers saw that Barrett wasn’t himself on both sides of the ball. He scored just 13 points in 27 minutes. Against the Heat, it looked like the 23-year-old was on a mission and he drove to the basket a lot, which led to him going 13-of-18 from inside the arc.
“Be aggressive. Play my game. I really haven’t had that aggression from start to finish in a while,” Barrett said as he explained the difference between his two games. “Today, I tried to do that. Media won’t see a lot of the things going on, but we really worked together a lot tonight. That’s really a credit to the whole team.”
Barrett credited the constant communication throughout the game as a big reason for how the team played Thursday, especially without Jalen Brunson, who was out with a non-COVID-related illness. Simply put, Barrett said they were “very locked in tonight.”
Good win aside, Barrett was asked about his benching.
“Took too long to get going. Just like tonight. I missed every single three,” he said. “I was still able to find a way. It’s not really an excuse.”
Thibodeau explained after Tuesday’s game that he just liked how the group that was on the court in the final minutes of the fourth quarter against the Lakers was playing without Barrett — something he echoed in his pregame meeting Thursday.
“We know [Barrett’s] a critical part of our team. We need him to play well. But we’re always going to put the team first,” Thibodeau said. “We thought the group that was out there gave us the best shot. Most of the time he’s finishing the game. Just get out there and play. I don’t worry about missed shots as much as helping out any way you can.”
When Barrett was asked about his visible frustration with his benching, he downplayed it
“I’m human. I get frustrated just like everybody does sometimes,” he said. “My momma told me if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say it at all.”
There was plenty of good to say Thursday night, and the Knicks will hope that stays especially with Barrett’s on-court performance. In his first three seasons, Barrett has been notorious for being a slow starter in terms of his scoring and this year has been no different.
Entering Thursday, Barrett is averaging 20.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. That’s close to his numbers from last season, which is considered his breakout year. Perhaps the addition of Brunson has put added expectations on the young guard.
This week’s benching could be a wake-up call for Barrett to play up to what the organization believes he can. For the Knicks’ sake this season, he needs to.