It all started against the Heat on Feb. 7, when RJ Barrett played just 19 minutes and was benched for the final 17. And that was before the Knicks acquired point guard Derrick Rose.
In five of the past six games, Barrett has seen his minutes slide under 30 — a significant drop-off, since he was leading the league in playing time three weeks ago.
The homely 107-89 loss at Orlando on Wednesday night became the most head-scratching one in the continuing reduction of Barrett’s role.
The third pick in the 2019 draft was playing very well and had helped the Knicks get off to a double-digit, first-quarter lead.
In the win over the Hawks on Monday, Barrett hit two giant, late-game 3-pointers. But Wednesday, as the Knicks tried to mount a rally in the fourth quarter, coach Tom Thibodeau ignored Barrett. He didn’t enter until minutes were left, and by then the Magic were up by 15 and it was all but over. Barrett finished with 15 points.
Thibodeau explained the backcourt unit of rookie Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks had started to revive the club and had trimmed the deficit to 10 points before Orlando roared back.
Asked about the trend of Barrett’s declining time, Thibodeau said: “The depth is good. It’s a plus. You get into games like tonight and it’s more you’re just searching. You get in a hole like we were, then you’re trying to find anything that can get you going. The group that was out there got going a little bit. Ideally, you’d like to be playing from the lead. I thought the starters got us off to a decent start. The defense wasn’t good, but the offense was very good to start the game.’’
Barrett wasn’t made available on a postgame Zoom call. Reporters are not permitted in the locker rooms this season.
“I can definitely do a better job of helping him out, keeping his confidence up,’’ Julius Randle said of Barrett. “He’s always stays confident. It’s one of those things got to keep learning, keep growing, see what you can do better. I’ll help him out as well. He’ll be fine. He’ll be fine.’’
While the Knicks were preparing to face the Magic, injured center Mitchell Robinson looked well after successful right-hand surgery, tweeting a video.
“Thank you for all the prayers you guys have been sending me,’’ he said on the video. “I really needed that. It’s my first one, ever having this done. I’ll be back soon better than over. Go Knicks.”
Point guard Frank Ntilikina rejoined the Knicks after being away for a week because of contact tracing. He had contact with a person who had tested positive for COVID-19 during the Miami trip and had to quarantine in Florida. Wednesday’s morning shootaround was his first practice back with his teammates, so he’s not in the top condition. Ntilikina, however, had been either out of the rotation or hurt with a sore knee, and is mostly trade bait. He hasn’t played since late December.
“It was his first day to be able to go through practice with us,’’ Thibodeau said. “When he’s in quarantine, he can do conditioning in the room. That’s why you feel for the players, because they’re isolated by themselves. If it’s on the road, you’re not at home. But you have to follow all the protocols the league has set up and you have to take care of yourself as best you can. There’s only so much riding on a bike. You can watch film and stay as ready as you can be until you can get back.”