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Rookie RJ Barrett's lefty layup recharges Garden crowd as rejuvenated Knicks top Rockets

NEW YORK -- RJ Barrett, the Knicks' naturally right-handed rookie, has been told he's tougher to defend when he shoots with his left hand.

The Houston Rockets concur.

In what turned out to be the deciding shot in a raucous Madison Square Garden on Monday, Barrett authored a left-handed driving layup over P.J. Tucker with 7.6 seconds remaining, as New York defeated Houston 125-123.

"I just took the shot that came," said Barrett, who does most everyday activities with his right hand. "I like going left. That was kind of, in that situation, you're not really thinking about it. You're kind of just playing."

On a night when it didn't feel like the home team was in last place -- one with new Knicks president Leon Rose watching, in addition to New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, who, like Barrett, played at Duke -- Barrett finished with 27 points, tying his career high, on 10-of-18 shooting the field.

It was the kind of night Knicks fans have been craving all season, as Barrett, 19, reveled in the bright lights of the big city. He didn't do it alone, of course, receiving support from Julius Randle and his 16 points, as well as 15 points each from Bobby Portis and Wayne Ellington. But, clearly, the night belonged to the rookie.

James Harden put up a game-high 35 points and Russell Westbrook added 24 points and nine rebounds for the Rockets, who struggled out of the gate, falling down by 21.

"We should've never put ourselves in that position because it takes a lot of energy to fight back," Westbrook said. "Especially on the road."

But they did fight back. As Harden shimmied his way to the free throw line, where he was a perfect 16-for-16, and as Westbrook zoomed across the floor with unreasonable speed, knocking down jumper after jumper, that once-commanding New York advantage dwindled. The Knicks entered the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead, but it eventually shrank to two, courtesy of a Robert Covington 3-pointer.

But then came Barrett ... and that running left hand in the clutch, a shot the NBA may see more of.

"Aggressive," Harden said of Barrett. "I like that, especially for a rookie. Not timid at all, and when you're aggressive and confident in your game, you look good out there. Want him to continue to build his confidence and keep being aggressive and have the opportunity, which he will, to be great."

Of course, the victory doesn't change the fact that the Knicks are a far cry from postseason contention. If anything, the loss means more to the Rockets than any win means to the Knicks.

"We can't take games like this lightly," Westbrook said. "This is the NBA, everybody is going to go out and compete and we have to be ready to play."

And because the Knicks came to play -- for one night, at least -- New York had something to cheer for.