Canada's RJ Barrett relishing first playoff run with resurgent Knicks

R.J. Barrett averaged 18.1 points per game in the month of April to lead the New York Knicks to an impressive 11-4 month, and more importantly to take home the honour of Canadian Baller of the Month.

It’s so close, you can almost taste it, and RJ Barrett is ready to fill his cup.

To be young, to be a Knick and to be in the playoffs? Not bad. Not bad at all.

But it gets better. A little over a year ago, New York was one of the hardest hit parts of the United States – if not the world – when COVID-19 struck. Overflowing hospitals and overwhelmed morgues were a precursor to what could happen once the virus began seeping into every corner. The NBA closed up shop in March – ending Barrett’s rookie season with the Knicks – and New York went into a tight lockdown.

But the city that never sleeps is starting to come alive. Summer is around the corner. The city is poised to fully reopen by July 1 and is already returning to the kind of energetic urban experience that seems so-close-yet-so far for residents of Southern Ontario, or Barrett’s hometown of Mississauga.

On Sunday, the Knicks will host a playoff game at Madison Square Garden for the first time in eight years and just the fifth time since the Knicks’ streak of 14 straight playoff appearances in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s that are part of NBA lore as Pat Riley and then Jeff Van Gundy guided the Knicks to Finals appearances and New York’s rivalries with the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat spicing the decade.

The city has upped the Garden's capacity to 13,000 in time for the opener against the fifth seed Atlanta Hawks, the largest crowd in the NBA at the moment. It’s not the 21,000 that rock the Garden in normal times, but it will a sampling of the energy that Barrett can’t wait to savour.

Even being part of the first winning Knicks team in a decade has given Barrett a taste of what’s to come.

“Winning in New York City like a whole, a whole different level,” Barrett said in an interview earlier this week. “To see how, even with the limited amount of fans we have, how loud it gets in there and then after the game, just seeing videos on Twitter of people going crazy outside the arena, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s just been such an honour to be able to kind of help change things around.”

Barrett has been a big part of a turnaround that has seen the Knicks jump from having the sixth-worst record in the league last season to the fourth seed in the East this year. As the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 draft, Barrett took his share of criticism for his own struggles. Among those with at least 700 field goal attempts last season, Barrett’s .479 True Shooting percentage was the lowest in the league.

He was under intense scrutiny, even as a 19-year-old finding his way in the league.

Barrett rebuilt his jump shot in the off-season and has been a difference maker. He’s the only player 20 or younger in NBA history to average at least 17 points, five rebounds and three assists while shooting at least 40 per cent from three. He started slowly but from mid-February through the end of the regular season, Barrett shot 45.8 per cent from deep on nearly five attempts a game.

“Just seeing the positive results is great, it feels good because you know there's just been so much work that's gone into it,” said Barrett. “And when teams were in the bubble last year fighting for a championship, I was in the gym, locked away in Florida, working hard on my shot every day; two to three workouts a day. And to see it pay off during the season, it has definitely been a great feeling for me.”

Beyond trusting his jump shot, Barrett has earned the trust of Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau, a taskmaster who saw enough in his second-year wing to have him second in the NBA – and second on the Knicks to Julius Randle – in minutes.

The demands suit Barrett just fine.

“I've always had coaches that are real, I’ve always had good coaches that are trying to win,” said Barrett. “And I think that's why we kind of work well together, it's because I'm trying to win. And with Thibs, if you're not bought in and you have an ego and all different sorts of stuff, it’s not gonna work because Thibs will tell you to your face what it is. Thibs will get on you; every possession. It doesn't matter. You just, you got to have thick skin for that. Everyone has to kind of be on the same page trying to win, but I love it. I love playing for Thibs and I hope I get to play for him for a long time.”

The only downside – for Canadian basketball fans at least – is that if the Knicks playoff run extends to the conference finals, Barrett won’t be available to play for Canada at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria from June 29 to July 4. With Jamal Murray out due to a knee injury and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander questionable due to plantar fasciitis, Barrett would be an important part of national team head coach Nick Nurse’s wing rotation. Canada needs to win in Victoria to advance to the Olympics in Tokyo later this summer.

“Right now all I’ve been really focused on is the playoffs. I think everything else will work out once it’s done,” said Barrett, who led Canada to its only gold medal at a global championship at the U-19 World Cup in the summer of 2017. “I do know that with Team Canada this year, we have a great group of guys, really talented, with all the guys we have in the NBA and then overseas too. So I think that this year this team will really be able to put Canada back on the map and just show the whole world what we're about.”

But before that, there’s summertime in New York, and the Knicks are on a mission. Barrett feels fortunate to be a part of it.

“I've heard of stories, and I've been able to see just some you know some footage from back in the day,” he says. “I mean for a Canadian kid, a kid from Mississauga, in the big city, doing good things, being a part of great New York team, man, there's no better feeling.

“This is what I've dreamed of. I feel like I'm so blessed. I love the big stage so being drafted to the Knicks and us doing well, I hope we're going to continue to do well in the playoffs and hopefully bring it to an even bigger level.”

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