Toronto native RJ Barrett knows all about DeMar DeRozan’s trademark shot fake. It is part of what made DeRozan a hero in Barrett’s native city, putting together nine seasons with the Raptors, paralleling Barrett’s upbringing into an eventual top-three pick.
So, when Barrett was tasked with putting the clamps on DeRozan as the final seconds ticked away during Thursday night’s thriller against the undefeated Bulls, Barrett knew what he had to do to get the best of a former idol.
“I watched him so much growing up in Toronto,” Barrett said. “He’s always been one of my favorite players. Pride and joy of Toronto, so I’ve seen that shot fake a lot. He’s a great player. Luckily, I was able to stay down and [Mitchell Robinson] came over to help.”
With a double-digit lead dwindled down to just one, Barrett kept his footing on DeRozan, who tried his shot fake but didn’t get Barrett to bite. Instead, DeRozan settled for a contested shot that missed by a mile, helping the Knicks avoid a collapse and giving Barrett another resume-builder in his quest to be on an All-NBA Defensive team.
“First, we watch film, so that was a point of emphasis, just stay down on the shot fakes,” Barrett said. “I feel like at the end of the game like that, time and score, only up one, you don’t wanna get a cheap foul. So you want to jump after him.
“Just try to be there without fouling. Get as close as you can and alter a shot without fouling.”
Barrett did just that when it mattered most on Thursday, and has been doing it all season so far. He kept Jayson Tatum in check during the season-opening win against the Celtics, and that defense has continued through five games this season. Barrett has emerged as the team’s top perimeter defender, tasked with containing opponents’ top scorers. So far, he’s been more than up to the task.
“RJ Barrett, huge,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Scoring, but his defense was over-the-top. Disciplined on that last play. DeRozan’s great at utilizing the shot fake. They’re a really good team, so proud of how hard we fought.”
Speaking on the origins of his defensive improvements, Barrett had to point to the defensive-centric Thibodeau, who has helped bring back an old-school identity that Knicks fans adored back in the 1990s.
“I think it’s easier just because I’ve had experience in the NBA,” Barrett said. “I’m able to do little things I wasn’t able to do a couple years ago. But also, I’m playing for Thibs. He’s one of the best defensive minds ever. And I have a lot of help. We have Mitch back, so I’m definitely not doing it myself.”
Whatever the circumstances, they have had a big impact on Barrett’s defensive ability, which in turn has paid massive dividends for the Knicks so far this season.
Follow Ryan Chichester on Twitter: @ryanchichester1