There’s hardly a better evening than this one in the old gymnasium five floors north of Penn Station. There was a sellout crowd that witnessed the first of his many annual visits from Victor Wembanyama — and while the 7-foot-4 dynamo showed glimpses of the future, the Knicks kept him at bay.
Meanwhile, the Knicks played their most enjoyable game of the season on both ends of the court, with the terrific trio of Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett combining for 72 points and the center tandem of Mitch Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein combining to hustle Wembanyama and also combining for 21 Points and 15 rebounds.
The defense was solid and limited the Spurs’ shooting percentage to 26.5 percent from three balls. The offense was even better: 28 assists accounted for 46 field goals. An all-round successful evening in the office.
“We were on the rise early,” coach Tom Thibodeau said of the 126-105 win over the Spurs. The Knicks scored the first 13 points of the game and led by double digits in the final 42 minutes and 56 seconds of the game. “We were very unselfish, had a good rhythm and made our 3s.”
Something for everyone.
But a little extra for Barrett, who has started the season brilliantly. He played in six of the Knicks’ eight games and this was the fourth time he scored 20 or more goals. His defense is better. His passing has become great – he had six assists on Wednesday.
But what’s most telling is his shooting: Barrett was 5 of 9 from 3 on Wednesday. He made all three of his free throws. This season he is 47 percent from 3, 87 percent from the line (for a team that shoots less than 70 percent from the line overall).
Barrett has been hot and cold before, but he has rarely looked so confident behind the arc. Each year has become a parlor game for him, figuring out what aspect of his game he has improved to keep pushing his performance ceiling higher. And every year he gets better and better as a player.
“I tried to work on it,” Barrett said after scoring 24 points. “I have to get my touch right because they leave me open with Jalen and Julius constantly coming into the game. I have to be able to knock them down.”
Barrett shot a career-low 31 percent from 3 last season but got hotter in the playoffs before hitting a brick wall in Game 6 at Miami, when he went 1-for-9 and 0-for-3 from 3. He shot consistently well. In the summer he played for the Canadian national team.
And now he’s threatening something that seemed like a long shot just this summer. It is no longer just a helpful piece and an extremely valuable asset; If this is the player he’s going to be – and remember, it’s only six games so far – then he’ll become an increasingly important part of the team’s foundation.
For most of his career, trade machine addicts like your humble narrator have routinely thrown Barrett’s name into any would-be alpha dog deal that could help take the Knicks to the next level. This included a number of names – Donovan Mitchell, Dejounte Murray, OG Anunoby, among others – that were not necessarily core pieces of the franchise.
Maybe he’s not entirely untouchable. Not quite yet.
But it’s getting closer.
“We played as a team tonight,” Barrett told ESPN immediately after the game, as a small group of fans nearby loudly chanted his name. “A lot of guys had big numbers and everyone made a big contribution. It was fun tonight. We drove and kicked and made the right plays.”
He smiled. There was a lot of that in his first six games.
“I trust my teammates, my teammates trust me,” he said. “I’ve been playing with the same guys for a while now and it’s been fun.”
The enjoyment is mutual. These days, there are still more Brunson number 11 jerseys covering the faithful. You see a lot of ’30s – although some of them have “KING” on the back. There are the old substitutes from the rafters – 10, 19, 22, 33. But more and more you see a lot of jerseys with the number 9. And those who wear them tend to be younger.
“We have a great home court,” Barrett said, and the small crowd exploded. Barrett can do no wrong right now. It’s only six games. But it’s definitely a hopeful six games.