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Jalen Brunson Is The Heart Of The Knicks

Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks celebrates during the game against the Indiana Pacers on February 1, 2024 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

With two minutes left in the fourth quarter of Thursday's Pacers-Knicks game, Jalen Brunson began to dribble up the court following a Pacers basket, went right into Andrew Nembhard's body, fell to the ground after getting clobbered in the face, and had to watch writhing as Jalen Smith dunked and gave the Pacers a one-point lead. No matter. On the very next trip down the court, Nembhard broke up the play, yet Brunson attacked, as he'd done all night. The point guard got past Aaron Nesmith and over Pascal Siakam for an and-one, giving the Knicks a lead they wouldn't give up again in a 109-105 win.

Minutes before tip-off, Brunson received the news that he'd be a first-time All-Star (which came a week late, as he fairly earned the starting spot given to Damian Lillard). That news came shortly after the team announced that Brunson's fellow All-Star Julius Randle would be out for at least two weeks with a dislocated shoulder. With Randle sidelined, OG Anunoby nursing a hurt elbow, Mitchell Robinson's ankle keeping him out until at least March, and backup PG Quentin Grimes having to sit out with a knee injury, the Knicks needed Brunson to be electric.

On a night when the Knicks as a team missed 30 three-pointers, Brunson was transcendent, scoring 40 points on a steady diet of floaters, jumpers in the key, and other wriggly little hybrid shots, the sort of which made him famous in 2022 and have now turned him into a superstar for the hottest team in the NBA. Brunson's a screamer, using insistent force and an infinite arsenal of moves to get his shot off. He only made one three-pointer against the Pacers, and his highlight reel demonstrates an unconventional, burly way to get 40.

The Knicks have won nine on the trot, and 15 of the 17 games they've played since trading for Anunoby. The trade has made them dramatically better through streamlining: Randle and Brunson do most of the creating and scoring, Anunoby serves as a pressure valve, and everyone else either spots up or pounds the glass. Anunoby is the perfect tertiary player for the Knicks, as he complements their hellacious physicality while knocking down a good clip (39 percent) of the open threes engineered for him. The team is an outrageous plus-25.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the court in his 500 minutes with the Knicks this season.

But this is Brunson's team. The Knicks have been built around his talents, as everyone he shares the floor with is huge and most of them are good screen-setters, shooters, or both. More importantly, they've built it around his force of personality. It's rare to see any NBA players succeeding alongside their buddies from college, yet the Knicks roster three of Brunson's former Villanova teammates, and they all clearly like each other. The vibes are astonishingly good right now, especially because the usual mood for a Tom Thibodeau-coached team is "out of breath." Brunson inspires so much confidence and love from Knicks fans not only because he can score, but because he's an actual leader. Who wouldn't rally to someone who takes on every challenge and lifts his teammates up in tough moments?

The Knicks are third in the East, half a game behind the Milwaukee Bucks, half a game ahead of the similarly hot Cleveland Cavaliers, and a full game ahead of the banged-up Philadelphia 76ers. Challenging the Bucks' second position will be difficult without Randle, but New York is right in the thick of the best standings battle in the Eastern Conference. Nobody wants to fall into the 4-5 matchup; the Boston Celtics loom as the second-round opponent for whoever survives that rock fight. It's a tough task for the banged-up Knicks to stay in the top three, but they have the right man for the job.

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