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RJ Barrett Is Giving The Knicks A Boost By Taking Care Of The Simple Things

The New York Knicks enter Game 3 of the Eastern Conferences Semifinals with a chance to go up 2-1 in the series, which is a sentence that few would have seen coming as they slogged through the first month and a half of the regular season. They’ve gotten to this point despite a pair of a starters, Julius Randle and Quentin Grimes, dealing with injuries through the first few weeks of the playoffs, which makes the play of the team’s other crucial rotation players even more important.

Jalen Brunson has carried the torch as New York’s offensive initiator, evan as he’s dealt with his own ankle injury. Mitchell Robinson owned the glass and paint against the Cavs, an example of a player starring in his role. R.J. Barrett has been a steadying presence for the Knicks, bolstering their defense, connecting their offense, and playing with a consistent, cool confidence.

This would not have applied to the majority of Barrett’s season. While sentiment became a little too low on Barrett over the course of the year, frustration over his play was understandable. His season was marred by inefficiency, large stretches of inconsistency, an outright flatlining of his jumper, and a regression in his defense and decision-making.

The nature of this was maddening, as Barrett frequently operated on extremes. One game, things are forced, whether it be poor shot selection or a myriad of head-scratching turnovers. The next game, he’d be too tentative, with his offensive production lacking as a result. Open shots were hesitated on and the half-court offense gummed up — on/off splits are not a tell all of player impact, but it’s notable that the Knicks were outscored by -12.3 points per 100 possessions with Barrett on the court per Cleaning the Glass, by far the worst mark in New York’s 9-man rotation (Brunson, the next lowest, was at -0.2). His defensive slides were either the wrong or just not there at all. His presence, or lack thereof, was felt regardless of offensive performance.

And then, you get to the playoffs, where Barrett has seemingly figured things out.

Over his last five games — easily one of the best stretches of his career considering the moment — Barrett is averaging 23.2 points on supreme efficiency (61.6 percent true shooting). He’s 36.7 percent from deep on high volume and generating easy points with his strength, driving to the line 6.4 times per game. Playing against two of the top-10 defenses in the league during the regular season in Cleveland (first) and Miami (seventh), has made Barrett’s play even more impressive.

New York’s offense isn’t set heavy. Much of what they do is built off of the principle of drawing a double team/forcing help, and then making a defense pay for doing so. It’s simple, but with a roster built to Tom Thibodeau’s preferences, it led to the third-most efficient offense in the league in 2023, per Cleaning the Glass. Barrett can be prone to hesitation, forced shots, and struggling to make consistent reads in and around multiple bodies, which doesn’t jive with how Thibs wants to do things. But during the playoffs, a switch has flipped, and he’s looked much more comfortable doing all of this.

He’s been adept at finding his own offense within the flow as an off-ball complementary scorer, operating well attacking the gaps in Miami’s zone.

It seems small, but that step or two into his drive and eventual deceleration into the floater is found money. The lack of hesitation and planned attack is what makes the play so deadly from him.

He’s been aggressive in finding open pockets, relocating as a shooter, and letting it fly with a quickness.

As noted by Mark Jones during a broadcast, it seems notable that Barrett has changed his shooting pocket (i.e.: where he starts his shooting motion) and it’s become much more of a straight up and down rhythm rather than the cross-body approach he’d gone with prior. It’s difficult to time a jumper without watching up close and in practice, but the snappiness and comfort in his release has been apparent, especially compared to how rigid his shot has been in the past.

During game one against the Heat, Miami switched early and often to try and negate dribble penetration. In the past, Barrett’s shot selection tendencies and reads have been inconsistent against switching, but he put together one of the finest halves of his career to open the series. He was patient in seeking and destroying size mismatches in pick-and-rolls with Robinson, which the Heat largely did not switch. If there wasn’t an advantage to be had, he moved the ball and moved himself. He blew up the switch pocket when the Heat overplayed Brunson’s drive game.

While Barrett did force a few shots in the second half and overall offense died down, the process was still good. Sometimes you still miss shots! How he adapted when the defense reacted was huge — remember this for later.

The Cavs put two on the ball regularly on Brunson to try and slow down his interior attacks, and the Knicks opened up their offense with Barrett as a screener.

Jarrett Allen didn’t have his best series as a defender, but Barrett did his job to put him in a bind: leave one of the best rim finishers in the league (Robinson) wide open/guarded by a small, or close hard to the corner.

Again, that lack of hesitation is so pivotal. Efficacy, quickness, and confidence are the eternal blend that create shooting gravity. The first round series was an immaculate display of gravity in real time, as the Cavs initially were keen to let Barrett shoot, a sensible gamble headed into the matchup. Even without making many, it was enough in tandem with his quick trigger that forced Cleveland into defending him to the three-point line. Misses matter — are you putting the fear of god in the defense, making defenders adjust to constant pressure?

In Game 4 against the Cavs, Barrett missed two straight threes from the same corner, off the same play ghosting into the empty side. That’s what made the next part so fantastic to see play out.

As Barrett turns his shoulders and scans, he can see Caris LeVert short closing, approaching with chopping steps rather than a hard flyby. He feints inside with the in and out, freezes LeVert, and swiftly attacks baseline, going inside hand to beat the roaming Allen to the rim.

This single play was the culmination of a series of work and reps, bending the defense just enough with consistency, and attacking correctly even when given a minimal window.

While his reads haven’t been perfect (no one’s are), they’ve been consistently positive, and that’s been the largest driving force of his success. His driving has also been crucial. Incredibly strong for his size with a solid first step, Barrett has made strides literally and figuratively by working in a few extra gears in his transmission, he’s leveraged more control of the tools that made him a top-5 pick.

He’s been methodical in seeking out first contact out of ball screens, determining when and where he’ll do battle in the intermediate areas of the court. It seems a minor adjustment, but it’s done wonders in helping him create some cleaner looks around the rim, essential considering he’s not an overwhelming vertical athlete. Craft, patience, and those additional pivots and stutter steps are gigantic in Barrett creating better looks in the restricted area.

Watch how he uses his shoulders and stride length changes coming out of the slot.

By changing his pacing in his strides, getting a hand on Gabe Vincent early, and timing his own drive with Robinson’s roll, he’s able to get the most of his size and extend into an undeterred finish around the rim. This is leaps and bounds ahead of the line drives that would oft be smothered by defenses. There have been signs and indicators of a budding ability to change pace during Barrett’s career, but this recent stretch has been inarguably the most consistent. Even with poor finishing numbers in the first two games against Cleveland, the process was still clear and positive.

He’s noticeably making progressions, feeling out the game and the defense, and letting it come to him rather than barreling in and reading after. Rather than hitting the gas with his defender on his hip, Barrett’s head is up, sees Bam Adebayo step up, knows Robinson is rolling undeterred, and throws up the lob.

When the Cavs tried to adjust with quicker rotations in Game 5, opting to hard hedge and switch to take away Barrett’s open threes while also stifling Brunson’s drives, Barrett showcased his reads.

The second Barrett is turning, he’s met by his new defender (LeVert). This is a scenario in which we would’ve seen him freeze up or get tunnel vision more often than not. Not anymore! First he scans the slot, which is covered. Then he sees Darius Garland moving and rotating, finds Immanuel Quickley wide open, and throws a skip pass to the corner.

He’s timing his own drives with his roller to manipulate the weak side tagger and paint the corners/slot with a quick kickout.

There’s room for improvement in his deliveries, but it’s hard to not grin in watching this development from Barrett. He’s not making the sexy plays, just the right ones. Barrett has long been capable of doing the difficult, but struggled to find consistency in the routine. For him to put together a stretch of meaningful play at the highest level while consistently doing the small things means more for his future and potential than can be described in a sentence. And as a reminder, he turns 23 in June, making him the third-youngest player on the Knicks’ roster.

The playoffs can bring out the best in a player. They can also, unfortunately, bring out the worst. By feeling the game, doing the simple things that he’s struggled to execute, and becoming just what the Knicks need, Barrett is making sure that his best is on display.