Knicks evolved rotation means RJ Barrett no longer a lock to close games

A famous phrase in the NBA, repeated by coaches and players alike, ‘it’s not who starts the game, it’s who finishes.’

And right now, RJ Barrett’s status as one of the Knicks closers is in flux.

Tom Thibodeau clearly trusts Josh Hart as the defensive-minded wing, playing the newcomer a team-high in fourth-quarter minutes since his arrival at the trade deadline before Saturday night against the Pelicans.

Guard Immanuel Quickley was the other wing to finish Friday’s victory over the Wizards, leaving Barrett on the bench for the final eight minutes of the nail-biter. It was the second time in the last 10 games that Barrett sat down the stretch of a game in jeopardy. He was clearly peeved when it previously occurred against the Lakers, although Thibodeau dismissed it as an anomaly.

“RJ is going to finish 99 percent of the time,” Thibodeau said at the time.

But then it happened again Friday night — this time in a victory while Barrett was shooting well — and Thibodeau changed his tune about the virtual certainty of Barrett’s role.

“A lot of it is the flow of the game,” Thibodeau said when asked about his lineups in crunch time. “Like I said, I love our depth. We have a number of guys that are coming off the bench that are starters. There’s no dropoff. So whoever is going good, whatever the best matchup is, that’s what we’re going to go with. …So we need everyone. We’re asking guys to sacrifice. Some guys would like to start and they’re not starting. And some guys would like more shots and more minutes. That’s common. But everyone has to put the team first.”

It’s nearly guaranteed that Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson are playing the clutch minutes. They’ve alternated as the stars of this surprisingly stout Knicks campaign, while Barrett has taken a step backward since signing his $106 million extension.

The 22-year-old’s shot has been erratic at 32% from beyond the arc before Saturday, but he could still catch fire and was averaging 19.6 points. The big regression is Barrett’s defense, which had fallen to the team’s second-worst rating behind Brunson. Entering Saturday, Barrett was the only player in the rotation with a negative net rating.

His minutes in the first four games since Hart was acquired fell to under 30 per game.

“Ups and downs,” Barrett said about his season. “Like any other player in the league. Just trying to get back and trying to get everything on all cylinders again. Really back and focused in. Just be myself. Never get too high, never get too low. So staying the same, even-keeled. And fighting and playing hard and it’ll be alright.

“I don’t know [why my shot has been inconsistent], honestly,” Barrett added. “I don’t know. But working hard, getting the reps. Have the confidence so I’m going to go in there and I’m going to shoot it.”

It’s hard to argue with the results of the rotation. The Knicks won four straight after Hart’s acquisition, moving a season-high seven games over .500 before Saturday. But it does leave questions about the future of Barrett, who just last season was billed as the next face of the franchise.


If national TV is any indication, the greater attraction has moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

TNT flexed out the Nets vs. Bucks for the Knicks vs. Kings on their March 9 broadcast. The news dropped one day after the Nets were pummeled by the Bulls and the Knicks won their fourth straight.

Heading into Saturday, the Knicks were one game back of the Nets for fifth in the East. The backdrop to the national TV rescheduling is Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving bolting Brooklyn before the trade deadline.

Before the season started, the Knicks had just three games scheduled for TNT. The Nets had four.