Knicks’ RJ Barrett stays aggressive, unfazed by poor shooting in return from injury

Jan 11, 2023;  New York, New York, USA;  New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers guard Chris Duarte (3) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden.

Jan 11, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers guard Chris Duarte (3) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

RJ Barrett returned to the Knicks‘ lineup Wednesday after missing six games due to a lacerated finger, and he made his presence known.

During the Knicks’ 119-113 win over the Indiana Pacers, the Duke product scored 27 points on 39 percent shooting while bringing down eight rebounds and dishishing four assists. Surprisingly — or not — coach Tom Thibodeau had Barrett play 41 minutes in his first game back.

After the game, Barrett said his finger feels “good enough to play” and that he could have gone more minutes if needed.

“I just did what I could, man. That’s it,” he said. “That’s all you can do, really. Whenever you suit up, expect the unexpected. So just do whatever you can.”

While Thibodeau and the Knicks may have preferred Barrett not play as many minutes, they would need all the scoring they could get as New York nearly blew a 25-point lead to hold off the Pacers on Wednesday night.

Barrett was a big part of that, driving to the basket late and dishing the ball to Jalen Brunson and Quentin Grimes who made key shots down the stretch.

“I was trying to be aggressive. I’ve been working. I haven’t been just sitting down,” Barrett said. “To be able to go out there with my teammates having confidence in me was huge for me. I was just trying to find some sort of rhythm and be aggressive. I’m cool with giving it my all and living with the results.”

Those results were good on paper, but Barrett would probably like to drain some of the open threes he saw during Wednesday’s game.

A career 35 percent three-point shooter, Barrett made just 4-of-12 threes (33 percent) and shot 9-of-23 overall.

“I knew there would be some rust,” Thibodeau said of Barrett’s performance. “But overall, did a good job.”

“RJ’s been working hard, he’s impatient trying to get back. He’s going to be fine,” Brunson said. “I have the utmost faith in him. I’m not really too worried about him, he’s going to flow, he’s going to be back. He played pretty well tonight. There’s just a lot of things as a team we can do to be better.”

The Knicks’ second-half defense really faltered, allowing that large lead to evaporate in the third and fourth quarters, something that Thibodeau says is partially a product of today’s NBA.

“We’re working two guys back into the rotation so it’s gonna be a little choppy. We knew that going in,” the Knicks coaches aid of the team’s second-half. “But the rhythm will come, we scored 119 points. So, I’m not concerned about us scoring, what I am concerned about is our defense and not just not letting up.

“Whether it’s so a 20-point lead, 25-point lead, leads are not safe in this league. It happens. Every night if you’re watching the games, you see it. You’ve got to fight human nature. You can’t exhale, you gotta keep your foot on people.And for the most part, I think we’ve done that.”

Barrett echoed his coach’s sentiments saying, “They made the game really scrappy, but we stayed tough and we didn’t let them go all the way and get the win. Proud of that. They’re a good team, they’re a team that’s ahead of us so that’s a good win for us. Leads are never safe, especially with today’s NBA with the way people shoot threes. We have to do a better job when we have a lead to sustain it.”

Barrett added that he wasn’t necessarily tired by the fourth quarter but he could have played better in the second half — he shot just 3-of-11 — but is confident he will moving forward.

“I was good for the most part. Did the things to get ready. Could have had a better second half, but as these games go along I’ll be better.”

The Knicks have now jumped over the Pacers and sit as the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ll look to continue their upward trajectory this Friday when they take on the 18-24 Wizards.

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