RJ Barrett propels Knicks to blowout win over Trail Blazers

The Knicks have posted a better winning percentage than their opponents on Wednesday night have this season, even if the undermanned Trail Blazers have a far more realistic chance to reach the playoffs in the opposite conference.

The Knicks kept their faint postseason hopes mathematically alive, while damaging Portland’s chances, however, with a 128-98 blowout victory in their first game at the Garden in more than two weeks following a seven-game road trip.

RJ Barrett poured in 21 of his game-high 31 points in the first half as the Knicks improved to 29-40 to inch within five games of the No. 10 play-in spot in the Eastern Conference with 13 games to play. They now trail Atlanta by that amount after the Hawks (34-35) lost to and were leapfrogged in the standings by the Hornets.

“It feels good to be back at home and just get a win,” Barrett said. “We’re playing Washington next [on Friday at home] and they’re ahead of us. … All you can do is get wins and stack them up.”

RJ Barrett, who scored a game-high 31 points, goes up for a shot during the Knicks’ 128-98 blowout win over the Trail Blazers.
Robert Sabo

Julius Randle totaled 20 points with nine rebounds and seven assists, Immanuel Quickley scored 18 and Evan Fournier finished with 14 — including his 200th 3-pointer of the season, moving within 16 of John Starks’ franchise record of 217 from 1994-95.

Josh Hart had 17 points to lead the Chauncey Billups-coached Blazers (26-42). They began the day one game out of the No. 10 spot in the West despite the absence of All-Star guard Damian Lillard since December (abdominal surgery) and the trades of CJ McCollum and Norman Powell at last month’s deadline.

“It doesn’t matter who they have on the court. Anyone who’s playing in the NBA is good and deserves respect,” Barrett said before referencing the Knicks blowing a 23-point lead Feb. 12 in Portland. “Last time we were up big and they came back to beat us. So this was also a little more personal, this game.”

One day after Tom Thibodeau declined to answer whether he’d received any assurances from the front office about returning next season, Bleacher Report cited sources saying he is “expected to remain” the Knicks’ head coach beyond this season.

Julius Randle, who scored 20 points, goes up for a layup during the Knicks' win.
Julius Randle, who scored 20 points, goes up for a layup during the Knicks’ win.
Robert Sabo

“I told you yesterday, I don’t worry about any of that stuff,” Thibodeau reiterated before Wednesday’s game.

Thibodeau, who has three years remaining on the five-year contract he signed in July 2020, earned NBA Coach of the Year honors last year in leading the Knicks to a 41-31 record and their first playoff berth since 2013 before losing in the first round in five games to the Hawks.

The Knicks have underperformed this season after team president Leon Rose added two new starters in the backcourt, veteran guards Fournier and Kemba Walker, the latter has been shut down for the season. Thibodeau favorite Derrick Rose also has missed the past few months following December ankle surgery. They squandered second-half leads on their recent road trip against top teams in stops in Philadelphia, Phoenix, Memphis and Brooklyn.

Mitchell Robinson slams one home during the Knicks' victory.
Mitchell Robinson slams one home during the Knicks’ victory.
Robert Sabo

“I’ve said this from the All-Star break on: the team is playing really good basketball, but also the spirit of the team, the way they’re practicing, I can see the improvement every day,” Thibodeau said afterward. “That’s what we’re focused on. … And look, we’re gonna keep scratching. Who knows where this ends up? So, just get ready for Washington, that’s all we’re worried about.”

Barrett (19.5 points per game) has a stated goal to finish the season with a scoring average of at least 20.0, and the lefty wing netted 14 in the first quarter as the Knicks grabbed a 37-29 lead.

Barrett competed with Thibodeau’s assessment that he “didn’t love RJ’s defense” to start the game, but the Knicks extended their cushion to 11 by intermission, 66-55, with Barrett finishing the first half with 21 and Randle adding 10 with six of the Knicks’ 19 assists through two quarters.

That duo also combined for 15 points in the third as the Knicks pushed their lead to 94-74 entering the final period.

“You guys are seeing RJ grow. Each game he does something a little different,” Thibodeau said. “He knows what his strengths are, he plays smart, he’s playing tough. He’s playing a good all-around game. … I just love his approach, too, every day he gives you everything he has.”

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