It reaches a different level when they start chanting your name at Madison Square Garden. It reaches a different place. Knicks fans, we know, are unfailingly loyal — to the team, yes, but especially to the homegrown kids.
Hell, even Frank Ntilikina got a rousing ovation from the faithful Wednesday night when he knocked down a shot late in what Marv Albert used to call “gar-bahge time,” and he doesn’t even play here anymore.
They are chanting RJ Barrett’s name at the Garden now. The chants emerged a couple of times all across the Knicks’ rousing, 108-85 thumping of the Mavericks — maybe their most impressive start-to-finish performance of the season, a victory that allowed them to crawl back to .500 at 21-21.
The Knicks are suddenly playing well at home again — five straight for them at the Garden, now 11-11 there for the year — and Barrett is a prime reason why. He scored 32 points against Dallas. Paired with the 31 he poured in against the Spurs on Monday, that makes Barrett, at 21 years and 212 days, the youngest Knick in ever to hit 30 back-to-back.
Quite a Texas two-step for the kid.
The Garden noticed. The Garden has been there for Barrett from the start, all across a difficult rookie season, throughout last year when he made huge strides. This year started ragged, Barrett missing time with the flu then with COVID, struggling with his shot whenever he was able to play.
In the worst of those times he’d said, “I’ll figure it out.”
He’s figured it out. He is now a multidimensional player — who is becoming increasingly fearless going hard to the rim, no longer settling for jumpers. It is good that he’s fearless. Boston’s Robert Williams toyed with him during a pair of games last week — blocking a bunch of Barrett’s shots, altering others. Barrett shrugged it off. He still attacks.
“I stayed aggressive,” Barrett said. “I tried to read what the game was giving me.”
His game, at its best, has become now an inside-outside smorgasbord, and he is only getting better. His friend and teammate, Evan Fournier, said when he scores on all three levels — inside, long range, midrange — “he’s far less predictable and so much more dangerous.”
It has become an enjoyable parlor game watching Ja Morant and Barrett — the Nos. 2 and 3 picks in the celebrated 2019 draft, thought to be Little Steven and Clarence to Zion Williamson’s Springsteen — each make separate climbs to NBA prominence.
Morant is having the better year, when healthy, and he plays for the better team, the Grizzlies sitting comfortably atop the Southwest Division. But Barrett is starting to become a regular force to be reckoned with. He’s averaging 23.4 points his past eight games. He’s shooting 46 percent. He knocked down the most dramatic shot of the Knicks season last Thursday, capping a comeback against the Celtics.
And he is still five months shy of his 22nd birthday.
That’s the part you should always remember.
“RJ is steady, never gets too high, never gets too low,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s putting in a lot of extra work right now, coming back at night to the gym. That’s a big factor.”
Said Fournier: “There’s no ceiling on what he can do.”
And suddenly the Knicks have you thinking about what their ceiling can be. Back at sea level, they have the chance to bolster their record and climb in the East across the next week before the schedule take a significant turn for the arduous. Julius Randle played better Wednesday — in fact, everyone did, all five starters scoring in double figures for the first time since opening night.
“We’re playing good basketball,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve got to stack our days.”
“Tonight,” Fournier said, “should be the standard.”
“When we share the ball, get stops, run out like that,” Barrett said, “that’s tough to stop.”
And when Barrett is playing like this? Yeah. That ceiling is still to be determined. For the player, sure. And for the team, too. Just listen to the Garden …