Knicks’ RJ Barrett’s playoff redemption arc is just getting started

RJ Barrett, New York Knicks pushes the ball up the court during Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks pushes the ball up the court during Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) /

The New York Knicks defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games to win their first playoff series in a decade. A series the Knicks dominated both mentally and physically. However, the most surprising part of it all was the play of RJ Barrett.

Much has been said about the former third-overall pick this season. A majority of it being negative, especially from fans who expected Barrett to take a leap toward being an All-Star caliber player. Instead, we saw similar production from the 2021-2022 season with a puzzling regression on the defensive end.

It made Barrett a polarizing figure among the Knick faithful, with some defending Barrett attributing his struggles to his age, while others lost faith in his development claiming we made a mistake not trading him. Boy, has that discourse shifted. With Julius Randle hobbled by an ankle injury, Barrett rose to the occasion.

RJ Barrett has been instrumental to Knicks’ playoff run

After shooting 6-for-25 from the field and 1-from-8 from three for the first two games in Cleveland, which the Knicks split, Barrett bounced back in Game 3 with 19 points, eight rebounds, and three assists shooting 67% from the field with three three-pointers made. He would follow that up with 26 points in Game 4 and 21 points in Game 5. Overall he shot 56% from the field in those three straight wins.

I would go as far as to say that without RJ Barrett, the Knicks wouldn’t have won this series, at least not as convincingly. A lot of the praise for this series has gone to Josh Hart and Mitchell Robinson for how dominant they were on the glass against the league’s best defense, and rightfully so. At the end of the day, though, the team that scores the most wins the game.

Barrett had an offensive rating of 116 in the first round which was the same as Jalen Brunson’s and had the second-highest game score for the series. Think of what the number would look like had he not been terrible the first two games. Barrett proved that if need be, he can be the second-best player on this team. That’s something that seemed doubtful over the course of Barrett’s relatively disappointing fourth season.

I always found forsaking Barrett to be wildly premature, given the fact that this is just the first year of his extension and he’s still only 22 years old. The rapid bloom of his draft mates and the accelerated pace of the Knicks’ playoff aspirations have skewed our view of Barrett’s development. Rest assured that it is still moving in the right direction.

With that being said, the jury is still out on Barrett. He struggles greatly from beyond the arc and still heavily favors his left hand. Also, the question still remains whether the Knicks can afford to wait until Barrett becomes a star. We’ll have to see if he can continue this type of production in the second round.

The Knicks will square off against an old rival in the eight-seed Miami Heat who defied the odds and eliminated the first-seed Milwaukee Bucks. A surprise to be sure, but a welcome one. With Randle reinjuring his ankle and his status still indefinite, Barrett’s performance will once again prove most vital if the Knicks plan to advance.