It reaches another level when they start singing your name in Madison Square Garden. It reaches somewhere else. Knicks fans, we know, are unfailingly loyal – to the team, yes, but especially to the homemade kids.
Hell, even Frank Ntilikina got an uplifting applause from the faithful Wednesday night when he shot down late in what Marv Albert used to call “gar-bahge-time,” and he doesn’t even play here anymore.
They’re singing RJ Barrett’s name in the garden now. The songs appeared a few times throughout the Knicks’ uplifting, 108-85 thumping of the Mavericks – perhaps their most impressive start-to-end performance of the season, a win that allowed them to climb back to 0.500 at 21-21.
The Knicks are suddenly playing well at home again – five just for them in the Garden, now 11-11 there for the year – and Barrett is a major reason for that. He scored 32 points against Dallas. Along with the 31 he rolled in against Spurs on Monday, that makes Barrett, with his 21 years and 212 days, the youngest Knick ever to hit 30 back-to-backs.
Quite a Texas two-step for the kid.
The garden noted. The Garden has been there for Barrett from the start, all the way through a tough rookie season, throughout last year where he made great strides. This year started unevenly, Barrett missed time with the flu and then with COVID, struggling with his shot when he was able to play.
In the worst of those times, he had said, “I’ll find out.”
He has found out. He is now a multidimensional player – who becomes more and more fearless by going hard to the edge and no longer settling for jumpers. It’s good that he’s fearless. Boston’s Robert Williams played with him during a couple of games last week – blocking a lot of Barrett’s shots and changing others. Barrett shrugged. He is still attacking.
“I remained aggressive,” Barrett said. “I was trying to read what the game gave me.”
His game at its best has now become an inside-out smorgasbord, and he only gets better. His friend and teammate, Evan Fournier, said when he scores at all three levels – inside, long range, mid-range – “he’s far less predictable and so much more dangerous.”
It’s become an enjoyable parlor game to see Ja Morant and Barrett – options # 2 and # 3 in the famous 2019 draft, believed to be Little Steven and Clarence for Zion Williamson’s Springsteen – each make separate increases to NBA standouts .
Morant has the better year when he is healthy and he plays for the better team, the Grizzlies sit comfortably at the top of the Southwest Division. But Barrett is starting to become a regular force to be reckoned with. He averages 23.4 points for his last eight games. He shoots 46 percent. He hit the most dramatic shot of the Knicks season on Thursday, closing out a comeback against the Celtics.
And he’s still five months left until his 22nd birthday.
That’s the part you should always remember.
“RJ is stable, never gets too high, never gets too low,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s doing a lot of extra work right now and coming back to the gym at night. That’s a big factor.”
Fournier said: “There is no ceiling on what he can do.”
And suddenly, the Knicks make you think about what their ceiling might be. Back at sea level, they have the chance to strengthen their record and climb east over the next week before the schedule takes a significant turn for the troubled. Julius Randle played better on Wednesday – everyone did, in fact, all five starters scored double figures for the first time since the opening night.
“We play good basketball,” Thibodeau said. “We have to stack our days.”
“Tonight,” said Fournier, “should be the standard.”
“When we split the ball, get stopped, run out like that,” Barrett said, “it’s hard to stop.”
And when Barrett plays like this? Yes. That ceiling still needs to be determined. For the player, of course. And also for the team. Just listen to the garden …