However this Knicks season unfolds and concludes, there is no denying that what Tom Thibodeau has done is steady the ship.
His ship had no captain on Thursday night.
Until RJ Barrett took the wheel and steered it to port.
Took the wheel at a time when Julius Randle was hobbled with a barking thigh and navigated some unexpected stormy seas to carry the Knicks to a stirring fourth-quarter comeback and 106-102 win over the Wizards.
He muscled past Bradley Beal for an and-1 that tied the game at 91. He flexed. He inspired. He refused to lose.
When winning time arrived, it was as if Barrett was back at Duke.
Once Barrett refused to lose, all the Knicks did.
He had help — mostly Alec Burks (27 points off the bench, 15 in the fourth quarter) and Taj Gibson (diving for loose balls, setting screens, forced to play the entire fourth quarter with Nerlens Noel sidelined).
Thibodeau is aiming one day for a 48-minute team. Until he gets one, it’s nice having an ascending Knick like RJ Barrett as a building block.
Barrett’s resilience on this night epitomized what these Thibodeau Knicks are all about. He fouled Garrison Mathews shooting a 3 early in the first quarter. He couldn’t buy a basket.
But he found a way. He emoted at the end of the third quarter following. a follow-up layup.
“I was trying to get the team pumped up, myself pumped up,” Barrett said. “We had to fight, I knew we could get that win, we all believed it.”
“You could see his confidence growing,” Thibodeau said. “He’s learning every day. The floor game has really expanded, he’s starting to make plays, he’s seeing the game. Finishing a lot better. The way he was able to stick to it, and just keep going.”
Barrett’s leadership and Mamba mentality when it mattered was not lost on Randle.
“His mental toughness to be able to stay with it and make big plays down the stretch, that just says a lot about his growth and development,” he said.
Barrett did it all — 24 points on 7 of 22 shooting, 10 rebounds, five assists.
“I didn’t necessarily have things going,” Randle said, “but for RJ to step up was huge.”
For too long, the Knicks didn’t show up for this one.
They looked more like the David Fizdale Knicks.
The Wizards played as if this were Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The Knicks played as if this was Game 7 of the preseason.
A reckless disregard for the basketball, matador defense and dumb, uninspired play.
It was bad enough when Russell Westbrook whipped a pass underneath the basket for a Raul Neto three-point play in the second quarter. Thibodeau shook his head in disgust. When Neto missed the free throw off the back rim, the ball came back to him for a layup because no one blocked him out.
The Knicks missed their first eight 3s before Immanuel Brinkley drilled one in the second quarter. They finished the half 1-for-14. Randle, often double-teamed, deferred to teammates. Who deferred to Wizards defenders. There were two shot-clock violations.
Then RJ Barrett arrived. When he was asked about Randle, he said: “We’re just holding it down for him.”
RJ Barrett knows he is the one who is expected to do most of the holding.
“I love this team,” Thibodeau said before the game.
RJ Barrett reminded him why he does.