Regardless of how this Knicks season unfolds and concludes, there’s no denying that what Tom Thibodeau has done is stabilize the boat.
His ship had no captain on Thursday night.
Until RJ Barrett took the wheel and drove it to port.
He took the wheel at a time when Julius Randle was limping on a barking thigh and sailed through unexpected stormy seas to lead the Knicks to a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback and a 106-102 victory over the Wizards.
He passed Bradley Beal for a 1-and-1 that tied the game at 91. He flexed. He inspired. He refused to lose.
When it came time to win, it was like Barrett was back at Duke.
Once Barrett refused to lose, all the Knicks did.
He had help, mainly Alec Burks (27 points off the bench, 15 in the fourth quarter) and Taj Gibson (diving for fumbles, setting up screens, forced to play the entire fourth quarter with Nerlens Noel offside).
Thibodeau targets a day for a 48-minute team. Until you get one, it’s nice to have a rising Knick like RJ Barrett as a building block.
Barrett’s stamina tonight epitomized what these Thibodeau Knicks are all about. He fouled Garrison Mathews by throwing a triple early in the first quarter. He couldn’t buy a basket.
But he found a way. He got excited at the end of the next third quarter. a tracking tray.
“I was trying to cheer on the team, myself,” Barrett said. “We had to fight, I knew we could get that victory, we all believed it.”
“You could see their confidence growing,” Thibodeau said. “He is learning every day. The floor game has really expanded, he’s starting to make plays, he’s watching the game. Finishing much better. The way he was able to keep it up and move on. “
Barrett’s leadership and Mamba’s mindset when it mattered were not lost on Randle.
“His mental strength to be able to stay and make great plays down the stretch says a lot about his growth and development,” he said.
Barrett did it all: 24 points on 7 of 22 shooting, 10 rebounds, five assists.
“He didn’t necessarily have things going,” Randle said, “but for RJ to step up was huge.”
For too long, the Knicks didn’t show up for this one.
They were more like the David Fizdale Knicks.
The Wizards played like this was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The Knicks played like this was Game 7 of the preseason.
A reckless disregard for basketball, matador defense, and foolish, uninspired play.
It was bad enough when Russell Westbrook threw a pass under the basket for a three-point play by Raul Neto in the second quarter. Thibodeau shook his head in disgust. When Neto missed the free throw from the back ring, the ball came back to him for a layup because no one blocked it.
The Knicks missed their first eight triples before Immanuel Brinkley drilled one in the second quarter. They finished the half 1 of 14. Randle, who was often a double team, differed from his teammates. Who gave in to the Wizards’ defenders. There were two shot clock violations.
Then came RJ Barrett. When asked about Randle, he said, “We’re just pushing him for him.”
RJ Barrett knows that he is the one expected to do most of the holding.
“I love this team,” Thibodeau said before the game.
RJ Barrett reminded him why he does it.