RJ Barrett had come up empty for more than three quarters Tuesday night, but Tom Thibodeau’s decision to stick with his starting small forward down the stretch paid off for the Knicks in Minneapolis.
Barrett scored all of his eight points in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter, helping the Knicks close out the Timberwolves, 96-88, for consecutive wins for the first time since the opening weeks of the season in late October.
“He made big plays down the stretch for us, and that’s what I like. He didn’t force and then he found a rhythm by the end of the game,” Thibodeau said of Barrett. “I thought he read the game very well down the stretch, and that’s the big thing.
“He wasn’t scoring, but he was impacting the game. Like, he was trying to play great defense, and then he found his way. Once he got the ball to go in, he made several big plays for us.”
The 21-year-old Barrett had netted only nine points on 4 of 15 shooting over 26 minutes in Saturday’s win over Atlanta, his first game back with the team in more than two weeks due to his COVID-19 shutdown.
The former Duke star also clanked seven of eight attempts from 3-point range against the Hawks, before finishing just 1-for-4 from long distance Tuesday night.
Barrett picked up his second foul and sat down barely four minutes into the game, and he was assessed a third soon after returning to the floor in the second quarter, playing just eight minutes in a scoreless first half.
“I pulled him early just because of the two fouls, and usually once a guy comes back, the first stint is going to be shorter,” Thibodeau said.
The third-year wing missed his first seven shots and didn’t score his first points until converting a left-side drive for an 85-79 lead with 5:49 remaining in the fourth quarter. He also knocked down a left-corner 3 with 4:11 left to stretch the Knicks’ lead to seven, connecting on his final three attempts.
The Knicks (16-18) pulled out what Thibodeau dubbed a “choppy” win despite Barrett and Julius Randle shooting a combined 26.7 percent (8-for-30) from the floor.
“The first couple of games, I’m just trying to play within the team concepts and find my rhythm again,” Barrett said. “Definitely, once you see one [shot] fall, you feel good, and hopefully that translates to [Wednesday in Detroit] and the rest of the season.”
Barrett added that his COVID symptoms mostly were just fatigue and “nothing too crazy.”
“I think any time you’re out for 10 days, it’s going to affect you whether you have COVID or not,” Barrett said. “I feel better now, I think it’s just not playing basketball for 10 days.
“It’s no excuse, I just gotta keep working and I’ll be good. I just need repetition, consistency. This year’s been a little tough with sicknesses and stuff. But I hope now I’m able to consistently be in the gym and I’m good for the rest of the season.”
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