NEW ORLEANS – Zion Williamson came in disguised over Halloween as a gleaming spectator, seated next to the base seats, on the last of the pelicans.
The Pelican star wore an oversized, bright yellow sweater with a hoodie and had a good seat to watch his ex-Duke friend, RJ Barrett, put on a frightening and stunning performance of the Knicks professional at Smoothie King Arena.
Barrett outplayed a dormant Williamson 35-0 in a thrilling performance as the Knicks continued their spirited start with a 123-117 victory over the woebegone Pelicans.
35 points — including 25 in the second half — scored a career high for Barrett, breaking the old record of 32.
“It was fun and exciting for us,” said Barrett, who scored eight rebounds and six assists. “Especially the kind of game it was. They really made a push.”
Barrett was brilliant throughout the game, shooting 12-18 and 6-8 from a 3-point range, but single-handedly fended off the Pelicans’ late onslaught in the last two minutes as the Knicks improved to 5-1.
“That was stiff,” Barrett said, referring to coach Tom Tibodeau. “He was running those plays for me at the end. That’s a nice defense reading. That’s the kind of player I am now. I was glad I was able to show that today.”
The swans almost made a comeback along the way. But Barrett scored nine points in the final 1:40 with an assist.
“It was fantastic – all-out game, start to finish, big shots, big bang, big effort, bouncing the ball, big shots,” Tibodou said. “It went downhill. We needed it. They played hard.”
With the Knicks’ lead reduced to two points, Barrett dropped a large triple pointer with 1:40 left, after which he silenced the audience with his index finger on his lips.
Barrett then fed Gibson’s crown to throw the ball with 1:05 left after the Pelicans got two again. Barrett topped the three-pointer with 43 seconds left to put the Knicks 119-112 ahead, after which he was assaulted by his teammates.
After drying a three-pointer from the corner early in the fourth quarter, Barrett turned around and seemed to catch a sneak peek at his former college teammate. The Knicks shot 19 to 33 from a 3-point range.
Barrett spoke to Williamson before leaving the ring.
“I saw him after the game,” Barrett said. “He just said he’s happy for me, stuff like that. But he’s great. I can’t wait for him to be back there on the field. It’s just great to see him there, we don’t see each other very often because of the schedules.”
Tibodo enjoyed the idea that Williamson’s presence might have propelled Barrett into the night of his career.
“I hope it isn’t,” he said. “I love the way he handles the game. He has a lot of pride. So whether it’s here or in front of his Duke friends – Coach K watches a lot of his games and there are a lot of Duke members in the league. He’s a busy guy. We’ll go with that. He did that.” because of Zion.
The Pelicans falter at 1-6 – surrounded by Williamson’s season-long rehab of foot surgery. Pelicans coach Willie Green said Saturday their other star, Brandon Ingram, was given a day off after waking up “in pain” after Friday’s loss to the Kings.
The hard-core Barrett and Williamson always go on divergent paths, with the Knicks star slowly emerging as a future All-Star and two-way player while the Pelican star’s injury history has become worrisome.
Barrett’s gem followed his impressive 20-point descent in Chicago, when he also stopped short of defending against DeMar DeRozan.
Williamson, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, is yet to come out after his first appearance of the season. The half-empty stands were a reflection of a fan base waiting for the return of a player described as the next Michael Jordan or LeBron James.
Now Barrett has a leg.