It’s hard to draw up a better night than this one inside the old gymnasium five floors north of Penn Station. There was a sellout crowd who was treated to the first of what promises to be many annual visits from Victor Wembanyama — and while the 7-foot-4 dynamo showed fleeting flashes of what’s to come, the Knicks held him in check.
Meanwhile, the Knicks played their most pleasing game of the season on both ends of the floor, the terrific trinity of Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett combining for 72 points, the center tandem of Mitch Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein combining to push around Wembanyama and also combine for 21 points and 15 rebounds.
The defense was solid, limiting the streaky Spurs to 26.5 percent shooting from 3, and the offense was even better, 28 assists accounting for the 46 field goals. An all-around solid night at the office.
“We were flying around early,” coach Tom Thibodeau said of this 126-105 takedown of the Spurs, the Knicks scoring the game’s first 13 points and leading by double figures across all of the game’s final 42 minutes and 56 seconds. “We were very unselfish, had a good rhythm, made our 3s.”
A little something for everyone.
But a little extra something for Barrett, who has started the season brilliantly. He’s played in six of the Knicks’ eight games and this was the fourth time he’s scored 20 or more. His defense is better. His passing has become terrific — he had six assists Wednesday.
But what’s most eye-opening is his shooting: Barrett was 5-for-9 from 3 Wednesday. He made all three of his free throws. On the season he’s 47 percent from 3, 87 percent from the stripe (for a team that collectively shoots under 70 percent from the line).
Barrett has been hot and cold before, but he’s rarely looked quite this confident from behind the arc. Every year has become a parlor game with him, identifying which aspect of his game he’s improved upon to keep raising his ceiling. And every year he keeps getting better and better as a player.
“I’ve been trying to work on it,” Barrett said after finishing with 24 points. “I’ve got to get my touch right because they’re going to leave me open with Jalen and Julius constantly getting in the paint. I’ve got to be able to knock those down.”
Barrett shot a career-low 31 percent from 3 last season, but in the playoffs heated up before hitting a wall in Game 6 in Miami, when he was 1-for-9 and 0-for-3 from 3. He shot well all summer playing for the Canadian National Team.
And now, he is threatening to do something that even as recently as this summer seemed like a long shot. He is no longer just a helpful piece and an ultra-valuable asset; if this is the player he’s going to be — and a reminder, it’s only six games so far — then he is becoming a more and more essential 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 deal for any would-be alpha dog that could help bring the Knicks to the next level. That’s included a number of names — Donovan Mitchell, Dejounte Murray, OG Anunoby, among others — who weren’t even necessarily franchise centerpieces.
Maybe he’s not quite untouchable. Not quite yet.
But it’s getting close.
“We played as a team tonight,” Barrett told ESPN right after the game, as a small nearby gaggle of fans loudly chanted his name. “A lot of guys had big numbers and everyone contributed in a major way. It was fun tonight. We were driving and kicking and making all the right plays.”
He smiled. There’s been a lot of that across 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 a mutual thing. There are still more No. 11 Brunson jerseys cloaking the faithful these days. You see a lot of 30s — though some of them have “KING” on the back. There are the old standbys from the rafters — 10, 19, 22, 33. But more and more you’re starting to see a whole lot of No. 9 jerseys. And the ones wearing them tend to be on the younger side.
“We have a great home court,” Barrett said, and the small gaggle exploded. Barrett can do no wrong right now. It’s only six games. But it sure is a hopeful six games.