RJ Barrett has looked for help from anywhere during his recent shooting funk.
Last week in Denver, while I interviewed Obi Toppin in the visitors’ locker room following a dogged New York Knicks victory, Barrett approached the two of us. Toppin and I were discussing his improved jump shot — digging into the nitty gritty of it, as basketball nerds tend to do. Apparently, Barrett wanted in on the conversation.
Barrett was just about the only Knicks player who had played poorly that evening. He’d shot 4 of 18, his third straight underwhelming game.
As Toppin and I concluded an interaction about how he fades away on his 3-point shots, Barrett paced toward us while wearing a big grin.
“What were you saying?” Barrett asked.
Toppin and I were both confused. Toppin responded, telling him we were just talking about jump shots. Barrett then looked at me.
“What’d he say?” he inquired again.
I told Barrett the same thing Toppin did. We were chopping it up about jumpers.
Barrett looked back to Toppin.
“But what is your technique?” he pushed. “You said something.”
Toppin said he was just trying to be comfortable, relaxed.
“Just let it fly,” he added.
Barrett swiveled his head to me and back to Toppin again.
“I’m trying to get some tips,” he laughed. “I’m doo-doo.”
Maybe Toppin finally handed over his secrets later in the road trip. Barrett finally made shots during Monday’s victory in Oklahoma City, the first time in a week and a half that he’d done it with any consistency. He was 20 of 76 from the field (26 percent) in the five games prior but scored 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting against the Thunder.
For Barrett, OKC is mystic.
A year ago, with the Knicks preparing to play in Oklahoma, he fired off a text to his trainer vowing he would end another woeful shooting slump. He decided that day he was done with jumpers and would dart at the rim constantly, instead. He left that Thunder game with 26 points on a season-high-tying 11 shots at the rim.
Fast forward to Monday in OKC. After five games of relying on his jumper and after an 18-game start with limited paint infiltration, Barrett got back to what he does best. He attacked. This time, he finished with 25 points and took 10 shots at the rim, a season high by three.
At this point, one could mention the respiratory virus/infection Barrett dealt with for most of the road trip. He could be starting to feel better. Or one could bring up the Aleksej Pokusevski-absent Thunder’s lack of paint protection as a reason Barrett sliced to the hoop so much more. However, he did shoot only 2 of 10 against OKC only a week earlier, and that was during a game that ended 145-135 — though Barrett was probably coming down with the sickness then, too.
Either way, his performance last season in OKC spurred a 44-game run of attacking the paint at a new level. That was a conscious change. It’s worth following to see if he discovered anything new this time.
It turns out, the only tip Toppin needed to give Barrett was to find inner peace once again in Oklahoma.
There’s lots to discuss from the Knicks’ three-win, two-loss road trip. Here are three other thoughts:
Jalen Brunson has arguably the deadliest floater in the NBA this season.
After sinking eight shots from floater range during Monday’s 34-point performance against the Thunder, he now has 65 on the season, 15 more than anyone else in the league. He’s shooting 58 percent on those looks, too. Of the 51 players averaging three or more attempts from floater range per game, only Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokić have a better percentage.
Watch his game and you’ll see pivots and post-ups and dekes aplenty in that area. Meanwhile, look at the names above him: Durant and Jokic.
It’s settled. If Paul Pressey was the first point forward, then Brunson is the first forward point.
Stopping the perimeter
If Cam Reddish returns from his groin injury Friday against the Portland Trail Blazers, the world may witness something it hasn’t seen all season: a lineup with Reddish, Quentin Grimes and Immanuel Quickley, the Knicks’ three top perimeter defenders.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau will have decisions to make whenever Reddish, who was starting until he got hurt a couple of games ago, returns. Grimes has filled in admirably in Reddish’s stead. Who sticks in the first unit? When Derrick Rose returns from what the Knicks have officially called a sore right toe (even though that delineation implies either that he has only two toes or that the other nine toes are the wrong toes), New York has a rotation crunch: 11 guys for only nine or 10 spots. If Rose takes longer than Reddish to come back, the situation smoothens.
But for now, let’s focus on these three: Reddish, Quickley and Grimes. They may not play much together (if at all), but if the Knicks need a stop, this could be the grouping that gets them one.
New York’s biggest problem defending in the half court this season has been its on-ball, perimeter defense. Quickley has been the squad’s best deterrent against smaller guards throughout autumn. He’s a heady help defender, too. But the return of Grimes from a foot injury injects a new element onto a team that’s 23rd in points allowed per possession.
Grimes makes ballhandlers work. Look at how he manned surefire All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on this play from Monday:
Gilgeous-Alexander got the Thunder to bite on those kinds of steps time and time again the week before when Grimes was out of the rotation. Check out Grimes’ hands here, too. Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the top foul-drawers in the league. Grimes keeps his inside palm on his hip and outside one ready to contest a shot, then goes straight up when the shooter rises — textbook contesting against types like SGA, James Harden or DeMar DeRozan. Thou shall not place a hand in the cookie jar.
Playing Grimes would allow Reddish to take advantage of what he does best, too: getting into passing lanes. Thibodeau teams, by design, always finish near the bottom of the league in takeaways. Reddish and Quickley are first and second on the Knicks in deflections per minute. Reddish has been far more disciplined in passing lanes than he was last season, as well.
The Knicks have options now if they choose to deploy them.
Thibodeau has conventionally used first and second lines. Every once in a while he’s gone with a nine-man rotation, and every once in a while he’ll use starters with the second unit, but the most comfortable version of himself involves keeping the starters together for a while and the bench together for a while. Reddish or Grimes will presumably start at the two once both are healthy, which means we may not see a Quickley-Grimes-Reddish threesome at all.
If we do, maybe it’s a trio Thibodeau goes to in small lineups. That group could work with Barrett at the four and Randle at the five, though Jericho Sims at center would give that unit loads of defensive versatility.
This is all hypothetical, but the Knicks have struggled with perimeter defense all season. It’s only natural to pontificate about how they might look if they play their best perimeter defenders all at once.
As the cliché goes, the best offense is a good defense. Well, the Knicks can reverse that.
How can they improve defensively? Never, ever, under any circumstances, no matter what they do, even if it means shooting a 75-foot shot with 16 seconds left on the shot clock, turn the ball over. Just don’t do it. Ever.
Because if they do, disaster ensues.
Sure, guarding the 3-point arc has been an issue, as has the point-of-attack defense, as mentioned above. The Knicks are fouling too much, and defensive rebounding has been especially underwhelming for a group that should be better on the glass.
But there’s no question, the greatest problem in New York, even greater than the rats taking over Manhattan, is the Knicks’ transition defense.
The Knicks are allowing 1.48 points per possession after committing turnovers, according to Inpredictable.com, which would shatter the previous record for worst in history. (Inpredictable has been tracking the stat since 1996-97). They might as well just hack dudes after committing turnovers if only to save everyone the time. Allowing 1.48 points per possession is nearly the same as sending a league-average free-throw shooter to the line for two shots.
When asked about how they can solve this issue, the players all mention communication first. Too often, they pick up the wrong man in transition, which is leading to mismatches. If opponents don’t score on a fast break, they find the small guarding a big or the big guarding a wing and pick at that wound until they uncover a good shot.
“You can’t relax. … And there’s a lot of switching going on, so there’s a lot of cross-matches,” Thibodeau said. “Sprint back, find the ball, don’t backpedal, don’t let anybody get behind you, mark the shooters. If one guy is jogging, that’s a problem, or if you’re complaining to an official. Teams are pushing now after made baskets. There’s constant pressure on your basket.”
Too often, the Knicks just don’t get down the floor fast enough, or they zone out.
Keep an eye on Julius Randle, a common transition culprit, on this play from last week’s win in Denver, which merged the Knicks’ two most glaring defensive problems: transition and rebounding. Randle’s performance that evening was his most energetic of the season. Yet, there were still plays like this, where the Nuggets have a five-on-four and Randle, backpedals, never gets into a defensive stance, acts as if he’s going to pick up DeAndre Jordan but never does and then watches a layup from the paint instead of putting a body on Jordan on the rebound attempt:
These sorts of problems are fixable. But until the Knicks fix them, they’re not pretty.
(Photo of RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)