As the fourth quarter rolled around Friday night, chants of “RJ Barrett” filled the sold-out backyard as he strode to the line for the free throws.
And yet, despite a monster 44-point game from Barrett, the Knicks couldn’t get away from the Bulls all night. That, along with a few brutal free throw shots, came back to haunt them.
As the game ended, the dominant sound was that of stunned silence as DeMar DeRozan nailed a jumper with 0.4 seconds left to carry the Bulls to a 118-117 victory over the Knicks.
One of the best performances of Barrett’s career came in vain as the Knicks (18-15) lost a second straight game after an eight-game winning streak.
“It’s not the same without the win,” said Barrett, who finished two points off his career high. “Tonight I got it. It’s just frustrating not to get the win. I feel like we did enough good things to win this game, but we didn’t make it.
As his team clung to a one-point lead in the final minute, it looked like Barrett was going to end his night in style. He drove to the net again and made a tough shot that fell to give the Knicks a 117-114 lead with 29.4 seconds left.
The Bulls then missed a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, but the Knicks couldn’t grab the rebound and Zach LaVine (33 points) took advantage with a bucket that made it 117-116 with 7 .6 seconds to play.
Jalen Brunson had a chance to extend the Knicks’ lead with 6.4 seconds left but missed a pair of free throws – a minute after Quentin Grimes missed the line twice. The Knicks finished the night 15 for 26 from the charity strip.
The Bulls called a timeout with six seconds left and drafted a play for DeRozan, who got up over Grimes over the foul line and sank the dagger to sink the Knicks.
“DeMar is kind of what he does,” Barrett said. “So we couldn’t let it get to this point.”
Barrett scored 26 points in the first half alone, then added power and flair early in the third quarter when he pushed hard to the rim and dived 6ft 10in center Nikola Vucevic. DeRozan fouled Barrett on the play, and his free throw gave the Knicks a 77-73 lead.
But whenever the Knicks looked ready to pull away by pushing their lead to seven or eight points, the Bulls always had an answer.
Friday marked the third time in the past 10 days that the two teams have faced each other. The Knicks had won the first two games in Chicago, one in overtime and the next by 23 points. But they lacked the finishing touch on Friday.
“I felt like we never managed to establish our defence,” said coach Tom Thibodeau. “It was an offensive game. Hard to slow down those type of guys once they got their confidence like they did. Then they had timely rebounds, we missed free throws. Things can change very quickly in this league.
It ruined a night that should have belonged to Barrett, who shot 14-for-20 from the field and 6-for-6 from outside the arc to go with seven rebounds and four assists.
“RJ being RJ,” Brunson said. “He was in attack mode for 48 minutes. He carried us. Especially when we needed it. We just have to close it for him.