How Knicks' RJ Barrett blossomed to have best stretch of young career in 2023 NBA playoffs

RJ Barrett
RJ Barrett / USA TODAY Sports/SNY Treated Image

What a difference three games make. After an up-and-down fourth season and muted first two games of the playoffs, fans dialed up the trade machine mid-series to ship away RJ Barrett, who turned around and had the best stretch of his young career.

All the glimpses of stardom came to fruition, helping the Knicks run away with a 1-1 series against a favored Cavaliers team. Barrett became the multifaceted wing teams dream about -- the one he’ll need to be against Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat.

Scroll to continue with content

This leap was lurking for some time. Barrett took the reins of the offense late last season, but had to adjust to a refreshed Julius Randle and the new addition of Jalen Brunson this year, as well as battle injuries.

Still, underneath the shooting regression and inconsistent defense, Barrett’s finishing ticked up to career-highs in two-point shooting (49.5 percent) and at-rim shooting (64.6 percent). He struggled offensively in Games 1 and 2, but his defensive impact was clear, crowding passing lanes and staying attached to Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell.

All these things we saw in flashes finally came together for Barrett for a sustained stretch. In Games 3 through 5, he put up 22 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists a night on 55.8 percent shooting from the field.

Efficiency from below the arc aside, his box score doesn’t do his game this past week justice.


In Game 3, he set the tone for the blowout out of the gates with a couple of threes and high-efficiency scoring. In Game 4, he dragged the Knicks out of a late-game offensive lull and made clutch plays to secure the victory, while Game 5 was an all-around complete effort and arguably the best performance of his life.

Barrett shot 6-for-25 from the field in the first two games, largely as a result of not aggressively attacking the rim and settling for tough jumpers. He shifted his mindset away from the floaters and towards strong finishes, looked for passing opportunities much more, and limited his threes to clean catch-and-shoot attempts, changing the series.

The newfound lack of respect for Cleveland’s shot blockers turned Barrett into a force at the rim, shooting 72 percent from within 10 feet after Game 2. His physicality earned him a whopping 13 free throws in Game 4.

It wasn’t mere straight-line strength, either. The Cavaliers shaded Barrett towards his right hand all series, and from Game 3 he trusted the work he’s put in and unleashed euro steps, in-and-out dribbles and an array of moves and finishes.


When bottled up, Barrett kept making the right read, passing out of 41.5 percent of his drives and turning it over just 4.9 percent of them -- both well ahead of his usual numbers. He also found himself in more short roll situations screening for Brunson, and wreaked havoc both scoring and dishing out of those positions.

On the other end, Barrett was a wholly dependable on-ball stopper and off-ball threat. He had active limbs in pick-and-roll coverage, rotated hard, and showed up in one-on-one situations.

More than how impressive he was in each of these facets was how he finally did it all together for a stretch of crucial games. Randle and Immanuel Quickley weren’t themselves offensively, but the Knicks were able to rely on Barrett to secure the series.

Now the narrative shifts strongly in RJ’s direction. Do the Knicks even need to trade for a star when he’s playing like this?


That and many other questions regarding the future can wait until the offseason. The lesson is that improvement isn’t linear, and Barrett’s proven once again that while the road may look bumpy, he is going in the right direction.

That means great things for the Knicks in both the short-and long-term. For now, Barrett will need to keep up the stellar play against a much more seasoned and tough opponent in Miami.