But in a must-win Game 2 on Tuesday night in the Eastern Conference semifinal against a Miami Heat team missing two of their top players, New York coach Tom Thibodeau pulled Barrett out down the stretch.
“You’re doing the things that you think are going to help you win the game at the end, and they’re tough decisions,” Thibodeau told reporters after the game when asked about his decision to bench Barrett in the fourth quarter. “And so you have –we’re asking everyone — to sacrifice and put the team first. So sometimes, it’s just the way the defense is unfolding. The way [the Heat] were shooting the threes, I thought we had to contain the ball and get back to people. So the group in there gave us the best chance of doing it.”
Josh Hart subbed out Barrett with still 7:03 remaining in the fourth quarter after the Heat extended their lead to six 93-87. Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle returned to the game 54 seconds earlier, forcing Barrett to switch on the Heat’s undrafted point guard Gabe Vincent, who was heating up with 12 points at that point.
During those 54 seconds, Barrett was at the receiving end of a Heat five-point barrage. His last three plays — a foul on Cody Zeller for shoving him to get out the screen, Vincent blowing past him for a drive, then letting Vincent get away with a crosscourt assist to Caleb Martin for a wide-open 3-pointer — forced Thibodeau to call a timeout and pull the plug on his starting wing.
Interestingly, the Knicks took off when Thibodeau pulled Barrett out.
The lineup of Brunson, Quentin Grimes, Hart, Randle and Isaiah Hartenstein went on a 14-3 run to grab a five-point lead 101-96. On defense, they forced the Heat to miss three field goal attempts and two turnovers during that span, with their only points allowed coming from Vincent’s three free throws.
RJ Barrett’s Mixed Play
Barrett exited Game 2 with 24 points on 8-of-17 shooting, three rebounds and three assists, hiking his solid numbers over his past five games to 23.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 52.5% from the field and 36.7% from deep. But he also committed three of the Knicks’ 10 turnovers.
He was the only starter with a negative plus-minus (-5). Barrett is a combined minus-14, meaning the Heat have outscored the Knicks by 14 when he was on the floor during the series’ first two games, despite scoring 50 points on 18-of-37 shooting.
His strong starts have propelled him on offense, averaging 9.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.0 assists while shooting 75% from the field and 60% from the 3-point line in the first quarter of the Knicks’ last five games.
“[I just] Try to be aggressive and read the defense,” Barrett told reporters in the locker room. “I know it’s gonna be a battle, so I just try to come prepared from the start.”
RJ Barrett Credits 2 Unheralded Knicks Players
Despite getting benched for the stretch run in Game 2, Barrett credited Hart, who replaced him in the closing lineup, and their backup big for turning the game around.
“Hartenstein, man. Getting all them boards. We were able to get a good shot at the end, so that was good. He was able to get us those extra possessions. It was big time, just his effort, as well as Josh Hart’s…Things like that are just big for the team,” RJ Barrett said.
Hartenstein pulled down nine rebounds despite battling foul trouble. His impact went beyond the box score.
On the other hand, Hart pumped in 10 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter. He nearly finished with a triple-double, adding 11 rebounds and nine assists.