The Knicks are Jalen Brunson’s basketball team. That is true today, it was true Wednesday night, and it will be true for the next 3 ¹/₂ years and beyond.
RJ Barrett will be by his side, and Julius Randle will be there for at least part of the journey. But until the Knicks land a megastar — if the Knicks ever land a megastar — Brunson will be the money player in the Garden. He will be the best quarterback in the market, better than the two guys most likely behind center in MetLife Stadium, Daniel Jones and Jimmy G.
Brunson again showed why against the Pacers, making the two plays that mattered most when the walls were crashing down on the Knicks. Two nights after blowing a 17-point lead and wasting a 44-point masterpiece from Brunson, the Knicks were trying their damnedest to make the Milwaukee loss look like a walk in Central Park. They were trying to blow a 25-point lead to an opponent not quite in the Bucks’ league.
Buddy Hield got hot for the visitors, making it a 105-103 game a little more than three minutes to play, forcing a frayed Tom Thibodeau to call a timeout. Out of that huddle, Brunson made a play in the lane and then nailed a 3-pointer from the left corner to regain control. He extended the lead to seven points again with 94 seconds left on a slow-motion floater that reminded again how he never lets the game get too fast.
Things got crazy again in the closing sequences, with a near Brunson turnover and a missed shot in the lane. But Quentin Grimes hit a dagger, and the returning Barrett drained a couple of free throws, and soon enough the Knicks had a 119-113 victory in the books. Oh, and Brunson had another 34 points in the books, too, giving him an average of 33.2 points over the five games he’s played since returning from a hip injury.
“I think my job is to be a great teammate,” Brunson said, “be the best version of myself, help my team win games, and just be a part of something special.”
He’s doing his job. In fact, there’s no way that recent endgame meltdown in Dallas happens if Brunson wasn’t in street clothes.
His four-year, $104 million deal is looking more and more like a steal. Knicks fans haven’t had a point guard in forever, in a city that positively adores point guards, and Brunson has been well worth the wait.
“I feel like I strive to be the best player every time I step on the court,” Brunson said, “first and foremost.”
He is the best player on the Knicks right now, and it isn’t close.
The home team needed him on a fairly significant midseason night. The Knicks and Pacers had each played 41 games, meaning they were starting the second half on opposite sides of the border separating playoff teams from play-in teams. The line is as fine as the one between genius and madness or, in this case, something that is legit and something that is not.
Hey, someone at the Garden should have been enterprising enough to put this on the marquee in the brightest lights:
Knicks & Pacers: See Sixth-Seed Smackdown.
Barrett’s re-entry added an extra layer of importance to the event, and on cue Thibodeau threw the wing and his messed-up finger out there for 41 volatile minutes, leaving Barrett with 27 points on 23 shots, 14 of them misses.
“I just did what I could, man,” he said.
The effort was clearly appreciated. What did the Knicks miss from him while he was out for nearly seven full games?
“Just the all-around play,” Thibodeau said. “The versatility, scoring ability, [getting] downhill, get into the paint, make plays, good size, wing defender.”
Nothing much, in other words.
As it turned out, the Knicks looked whole in the first half with Barrett, who opened the scoring with a 3-pointer 18 seconds into the game, and ultimately helped his team build a 23-point first-half lead. He had 16 at the half, and Brunson had 19, and the Knicks held a 62-41 lead that felt even bigger than that.
Meanwhile, Indiana’s star point guard, Tyrese Haliburton, bobbled a chance to settle a score from last month’s loss to the Knicks in Indy. It’s not often that a studio analyst can inspire the need for vengeance, but MSG’s Wally Szczerbiak was the one who called Haliburton “Mr. Supposed Wannabe Fake All-Star,” which is saying a mouthful.
Haliburton didn’t forget, and it wouldn’t have been surprising if he torched the Knicks with another reminder of why they should have drafted him, and not Obi Toppin, eighth overall in 2020.
But Haliburton hobbled off the floor and down the Garden tunnel late in the third quarter, suffering from a sore knee, opening the door for Brunson to make his own All-Star statement.
“I think there’s a whole ’nother level that he can go to,” Thibodeau said of his quarterback.
And that’s why the Knicks are Jalen Brunson’s team today, tomorrow, and for a long time to come.