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StarJ Barrett!

12:15 PM EDT on April 24, 2023

RJ Barrett celebrates
Elsa/Getty Images

No one has ever heard a single syllable of RJ Barrett slander out of me. Like any Knicks enthusiast, I have shown boundless grace to our 22-year-old superstar-in-waiting. I saluted his contract extension, applauded his defensive regression this season, and smiled serenely through his 26 percent three-point shooting from February through April. I definitely keep both eyelids open when he attempts to lead the fast break or finish around the rim. Whoever used my phone to text, "he is as slow a thinker as he is a mover," is disgusting and disrespectful, and definitely not me. And I never would have argued that he had no place in this Knicks-Cavs first-round series, or felt validated by his struggles in the first two games. Thus, I have coolly transitioned to RJ Barrett playing well in Game 3, and delivering the game of his career in the Knicks' 102-93 win in Game 4 on Sunday afternoon.

Barrett put up 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting. While miscast as The Guy, he can certainly take advantage of a defense tilted by the threat of Jalen Brunson. Every dribble was decisive; everything around the rim seemed to fall (and even the clunkers were gathered and dunked to completion by dear Mitchell Robinson). Barrett's only precocity is strength—bullish old-man strength that allowed him to bowl over guys he'd never beat cleanly and should have translated into keen finishing through contact. It never quite did, because he has failed to combine that strength with touch and decision-making. That's why the Jimmy Butler comparisons were grossly optimistic.

But this was his night. In the fourth quarter, RJ strung together the best back-to-back possessions of his young life. First: He got a half-step on Evan Mobley, put a shoulder into him, and flipped up a layup with his preferred left hand on the inside. Second: He dribbled into a fadeaway baseline eight-footer with both Cedi Osman and Jarrett Allen in his face. Describe either of these plays to me in a vacuum, and I see them getting pinned to the backboard or swatted into a photographer's face, respectively. He made both.

Of course, RJ still put his distinctive stamp on this performance—that's the 0-of-6 from three—but I'll continue following the traumatic ups and downs of his jump shot.

There were other triumphs in this game. Jalen Brunson already gets taken for granted, clocking out with his sanity-restoring 29-6-6. Coach Tom Thibodeau demonstrated personal growth by changing his usual tack—grinding his starters into dust no matter the quality of their play—and benching a low-energy Julius Randle in favor of an amped-up Obi Toppin off the bench. Closing with Brunson-Barrett-Josh Hart-Toppin, plus either one of the Knicks' excellent centers, secured this win. But the enduring image of this game is Barrett at the rim. If he can overcome current expectations—mediocre regular-season innings-eater—to become an average defensive wing who does stuff in the paint, the Knicks might have something here. Still a big if! But look at that big strong guy.

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