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  • Writer's pictureJoshua U.

2024 NBA Playoffs: Brunson's Brilliance & Resilience Gets Knicks By Sixers

When Jalen Brunson signed his second NBA contract, a 4-yr, $104 million free agency deal with the New York Knicks, the prevailing initial reaction from NBA fans & media was that the Knicks had overpaid for his services.

Jalen Brunson before Game 6 of Knicks/Sixers, where he would go on to cap a historic series with a 41-point, 12-assist close-out performance in Philadelphia.

Jalen Brunson before Game 6 of Knicks/Sixers, where he would go on to cap a historic series with a 41-point, 12-assist close-out performance in Philadelphia.

Despite the franchise's glaring need for both a point guard AND locker room leader, many fans and media members alike ruled that the Knicks paid too steep a price for a player that they viewed as very good at best.

This quick & unfair rush to judgment would frustrate most players, especially after signing up to hoop in the biggest & most scrutinous media market in the world.

For Brunson? This served as yet another opportunity to prove his doubters wrong -- which, as it turns out, has become sort of an addiction for him, as evidenced by his greatest triumph in a Knick uniform yet: a grueling series victory over a fantastic 76ers team in which he put up statistics even the greatest of NBA players have not ever matched.

Despite winning not one -- but two National Championships as the floor general for Villanova Basketball during his 4-year collegiate tenure, doing so alongside current Knick teammates Josh Hart & Donte DiVincenzo, Brunson's NBA projections were much lower than his accolades would typically speak to, due to his lack of standout athleticism & his short stature at 6'1".

Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart & Donte DiVincenzo, who reached the mountaintop together at Villanova, are now leading the New York Knicks to postseason success.

Despite his wealth of awards & accomplishments ahead of the 2018 NBA Draft, Brunson wound up a 2nd-round pick, 33rd overall to Dallas.

Brunson would begin his NBA career as a serviceable backup lead guard to his much more high-profile 2018 draft-mate, Luka Doncic, who went 3rd overall. Brunson clearly wasn't as dominant as he was at Villanova starting out, but his savvy footwork and below-the-rim skills translated well to the pro game. He finished each of his first three seasons in the Association as one of the most efficient small guards in the league, notably completing the 2020-21 season at a remarkable 52% from the floor & a then-career-high 41% from distance. He finished 4th in Sixth Man of The Year voting that season, a sign that his talents were beginning to be recognized. It was in the following season, however, where his star turn truly began.

At this point, Brunson was widely viewed as a fine complementary piece to a successful basketball team, but certainly not one that could lift & lead a team to significant success as the primary scoring option. When Doncic went down towards the end of the '21-22 regular season with a faulty calf, however; it suddenly thrust Brunson into the role of the guy -- at least until Doncic was able to return.

Brunson took full advantage of the opportunity. Brunson averaged just under 28 points per game in Dallas' first-round series vs Utah -- including 32 points per in the first three games of the series that Doncic missed. Brunson was able to mimic the play style that won him and his Wildcats two collegiate championships; ball-dominant wizardry while surrounded by high-level role players on both sides of the ball.

Jalen Brunson hits a shot vs Utah's Royce O'Neale in the 2022 NBA Playoffs.

It is only a handful of players in the NBA that can both shoulder major offensive load in a postseason series AND win. Although Brunson was only the focal point for the initial three games of the series -- Doncic returned for the final three -- Jalen proved himself as a high-level performer under playoff pressure at the pro level. Didn't hurt that he did so in a contract year, either.

Which brings us to Brunson's Knick tenure.

Before Jalen even donned New York's orange, blue & white threads for the first time, he had already established a theme for himself & his young NBA career. Whatever most thought he couldn't do in the NBA, he would wind up doing. Naturally, when you keep doing that, your expectations will keep rising to higher & higher levels. And, in Jalen's case, when you sign up to play in New York City, those expectations are already at great heights to start with.

To fully appreciate and understand Brunson's impact on the Knicks' franchise, we must first acknowledge the state of the Knicks immediately preceding his arrival. In the 2020-21 season, the first under head coach Tom Thibodeau's tutelage, a new culture was established that resulted in the Knicks ending a 9-season playoff drought. The Knicks would completely fizzle out vs Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, however, highlighted by Julius Randle's disaster of a series. Those poor vibes would carry over into the next season, in concert with a poor offseason from new President of Basketball Operations, Leon Rose. New York went from a 4th-seed finish in the East in '21 to a brutally disappointing '22 in which the squad didn't even qualify for a top-10 seed and Play-In berth.

So, insert Brunson, who turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for ailing, aching Knicks fans. His play at the point was steadying; his personality and stewardship even more so. The claims of "overpaid" became more and more false as each month went on in 2022-23. Brunson tallied a career-high 24 PPG, and also averaged a career-high in assists. It was official; the Knicks FINALLY had their point guard.

And this was before the postseason even commenced.

Brunson was instrumental in the Knicks' opening round series victory vs Cleveland. He was even better in the Knicks' East Semis vs Miami, despite falling short. Jalen averaged over 31 PPG against Miami coach Erik Spoelstra's savant-like defensive schemes.

Lo and behold, Brunson had proved himself once again. Overpay? Are you kidding? For this playoff performance, Brunson now appeared to be one of the very best bargains in the Association.

For many of the all-time great talents that have graced the NBA over its now 77-year history, their competitive wills are typically unassailable. As a matter of fact, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Stephen Curry have each admitted to intentionally seeking out external sources of doubt in order to motivate themselves and create new challenges to conquer.

In Brunson's case, entering this current season -- despite all he had accomplished in Year 1 as a Knick -- still had plenty on his personal bucket list. While Jalen had an All-Star and All-NBA caliber season in '22-23, he wasn't selected for either. In addition to that, after an uneven start from New York this season, the questioning of Jalen Brunson now shifted towards:

"Yeah he's good. But just how good is he?"

On an 'Inside The NBA' Tuesday in early December, the 12-7 Knicks were readying to play the 15-5 Milwaukee Bucks. Now, in my humble opinion, a 12-7 record to start the season off following your franchise's first playoff series victory in 10 years isn't anything to snub your nose at. However, I noticed something interesting taking place with the NBA media as it pertained to their early-season evaluation of the Knicks.

Here's the thing: If most other franchises -- i.e, those that rest in small-market cities -- had compiled a relatively inexpensive roster, led by blue collar workers and 2nd-round picks, and worked their way to a top-5 seed in their conference through grit, mental toughness and relentless activity... they'd be universally celebrated & granted plenty of patience.

Circling back to Inside the NBA on 12/5: TNT's Kenny Smith offered up an incendiary take about Brunson & the Knicks that wasn't met with much resistance from his bald brethren on set.

That's Kenny Smith intimating that the Knicks were destined for long-term mediocrity with their current group because no matter their opponent among contenders in the East, they'd never have the best player on the floor. Smith even brought up the aforementioned Orlando Magic in the middle of his diatribe, essentially calling their 21 year-old, defending Rookie of The Year Paolo Banchero a better player than Brunson.

Banchero, who had never played a postseason game to that point and had just kicked off his second NBA season, in the eyes of Kenny Smith, was unequivocally better than Jalen Brunson, who had just averaged 28/6/5 as the primary option while leading the Knicks to their most prosperous postseason run in a decade. So, there's that.

Two other prominent basketball voices raised questions about Brunson's capability of leading the Knicks to the promised land. Las Vegas Aces head coach and ESPN analyst Becky Hammon voiced her opinion on Brunson & the Knicks on December 21st:

Hammon answered Malika Andrews' initial question, "how stuck do you think the Knicks are here in the Eastern Conference?" by saying that the Knicks didn't have the personnel nor the manpower to compete with the upper echelon teams in the East, mainly because they didn't have an "1A dude" to take them over the top. Noted pro-Knicks personality Kendrick Perkins offered the retort that Brunson was indeed that guy. Hammon swiftly responded, stating that Brunson was "too small" , and even offered up a philosophy of hers to support her point:

"If your best player is small, you're not winning. John Stockton, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, you go down the list. Steph Curry... he's the best shooter to ever walk the planet... he's in a different class."

Hammon is a wildly successful basketball person. She was a three-time All-American in high school. She was a six-time All-Star in the WNBA, earning the moniker "Big Shot Becky". After her playing career was cut short by injury, she became only the 2nd female assistant coach in NBA history, joining Gregg Popovich's staff in San Antonio. She then went on to become the head coach of the Las Vegas Aces, winning back-to-back titles in '22 and '23, leading to her induction into the National Basketball Hall of Fame shortly thereafter.

I state all that to say: there have not been many basketball legends that have earned more of a right to speak on what it takes to win at the highest level than Hammon has. As fellow Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal likes to say, Hammon has absolutely acquired G-14 classification on such matters.

As has future Hall-of-Famer, Candace Parker, who also expressed doubt on national TV on how far Brunson could take the Knicks. By the way, Did you know she's a Bears fan?

Jalen Brunson, father and Knicks' assistant coach Rick Brunson, and Candace Parker at 2024's All-Star Weekend.

Via Jalen Brunson's Instagram story following this year's All-Star Weekend. If you know, you know.

The "basketball gods" work in funny ways. With the way the Knicks' season would proceed to play out post-December, it turned out that Jalen Brunson would be awarded opportunity after opportunity to quiet his doubters.

The Knicks' made a franchise-altering trade on December 30th, acquiring defensive mercenary OG Anunoby from the Toronto Raptors, with the Knicks shipping former draftees and fan favorites Immanuel Quickley & RJ Barrett above the border in the process. The trade fortified the Knicks’ lackluster defense, but immediately added more offensive responsibility to Brunson and Julius Randle. The team’s new formula worked like a charm, as the Knicks would proceed to rip a stretch of 12 wins in OG’s first 14 games with the group.

Knicks' OG Anunoby.

Foreground: OG Anunoby. Background: Jalen Brunson.

Tragedy struck on January 27th, however. With yet another win well in hand for the Knicks, Randle suffered what would turn out to be a season-ending shoulder dislocation in the 4th quarter vs the Miami Heat. In the following days, it was revealed that Anunoby would have to undergo surgery on his right elbow and miss significant time as well. New York was also without center Mitchell Robinson for an extended period due to left ankle surgery.

Knicks' Julius Randle after suffering a dislocated shoulder vs the Miami Heat.

Julius Randle's dislocated right shoulder suffered on Jan. 27th vs Miami would later prove to be season-ending, despite Randle's best efforts to rehabilitate.

With the entirety of the Knicks’ starting frontcourt out for the foreseeable future, Brunson had to carry like he’d never carried before.

And he did just that.

Brunson took his game to another level (again), averaging 31.5 PPG & 7 assists post January 27th, all the way to the conclusion of the regular season. This stretch saw Jalen put together some monstrous performances; a massive 40-pt night at MSG vs Indiana, back-to-back 40-pt games @ Portland and Sacramento, and a career-high 61 points @ San Antonio in which he had just missed the mark of the greatest single-game Knick scoring night by 1 singular point.

He also smacked the all-world Boston Celtics upside the head with a 39 point night in Boston on a late-season TNT Thursday, which prompted our old friend Kenny Smith to sing a much different tune in regards to Brunson;

Brunson hadn’t just kept the Knicks afloat amidst all the injuries. He straight up carried the Knicks to an unfathomable 50-win season and, with that: the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference. It was a remarkable run from Brunson and New York that had increased respect flowing in from fans and media alike, as the Knicks accomplished something meaningful & tangible with seemingly the hardest road possible.

Speaking of the hardest road possible: There was an interesting scenario that emerged in the middle of the Knicks’ last game of the regular year vs the Bulls.

The Knicks, along with the Bucks and Cavaliers, were the teams that remained alive for the East's 2nd seed entering the final regular season game. Both the Bucks and Cavs wound up resting their most prominent players to set up more... quote, end quote, favorable matchups in the first round. The Knicks had an opportunity to do the same, as a loss vs Chicago would have set up a first round matchup with the Indiana Pacers, as opposed to facing off against... quote, end quote, tougher, more difficult teams in either Philadelphia or Miami.

With everything you've learned about the Knicks, and with everything you've learned about Jalen Brunson... would you really have expected the Knicks to lay down and not take the hardest road?

Of course not.

Brunson scored 40 more points to lead the Knicks to an OT victory at The Garden, and in the Play-In Tournament two days later, the 76ers defeated the Heat to clinch the 7th seed. So, there we had it.

Sixers vs Knicks.

Philadelphia vs New York.

The 7'1" Embiid vs the 6'1" Jalen Brunson.

Despite the Knicks being the 2nd seed & Philly the 7th, it seemed as if the media was deeming Brunson the David and Embiid the Goliath.

Outside of the obvious size distinction of the two superstars, multiple betting sportsbooks actually had the Sixers listed as likelier to make it out of the East as opposed to the Knicks.

The New York Post's "Jalen vs Goliath" back page cover on April 19th, 2024.

New York Post, April 19th, 2024.

Just off the fact that basketball fans were getting a Philly vs NY series, most knew what this series would entail. Blood. Sweat. Tears. Grit... from both sides of the ring. Those were givens.

Somehow, these two teams exceeded those expectations.

I didn't use the phrase "both sides of the ring" by accident. This series truly made like a high-stakes prize fight.

Game 1 saw the Knicks emerge victorious, 111-104, behind multiple timely Josh Hart threes in the 4th quarter. To stick with the boxing theme; the Knicks may have won the round, but Philly landed some haymakers that caught the Knicks back on their heels and wobbly at points. Embiid put a scare into basketball fans after his remarkable self-assist highlight dunk through Mitchell Robinson and over the top of OG Anunoby; Joel crumbled down to the ground after landing awkwardly on his surgically repaired left knee. (Embiid suffered a torn meniscus in that knee earlier in the season.)

Brunson had his worst game in months, shooting 8-26 from the floor. Philadelphia's head coach Nick Nurse, who is notorious for not allowing the opposing team's superstar beat him, displayed a phenomenal gameplan vs Brunson, putting multiple tall wings like Kelly Oubre & Nicolas Batum on JB throughout the contest, which, in effect, made Brunson visibly uncomfortable.

Brunson's discomfort would carry over into Game 2, as he shot an even worse 8-for-29 from the field. The 76ers, and more specifically Tyrese Maxey, started the game off aflame, and led throughout the first half. The Knicks, though (surprise, surprise!), kept clawing and gnawing their way back into the contest. As Brunson slowly started to find his game, the Knicks actually took the lead entering the 4th behind a dynamite 3rd quarter. Philly worked their way back into the contest, and took the lead on another haymaker. Maxey's three-pointer with 57.1 seconds left put Philly up 4 and in command.

What ensued after this, you ask? Madness and chaos. Chaos and madness.

To reiterate, Jalen played like basura in Game 2. I don't feel bad saying that because he'd probably say the same if you asked him personally. With that being said, though, one of the truest testaments of what makes a great player is their ability to always move on to the next play and show up when it matters in the clutch. After Brunson missed a right-corner three & Kyle Lowry split a pair of free throws at the other end, JB came right back down and got a very friendly bounce on a huge three-pointer in front of the Sixers' bench to cut the lead to 101-99 with 27 seconds remaining. Then, this:

Talk about pulling a win out of your ass. The Knicks went up 2 games to none on the heels of this miraculous sequence, but the underlying storyline following the game (other than Sixers' fans losing their collective minds at the officiating) was Brunson's lackluster showing to open the series. Philly seemed to have him bottled up and frustrated in a way that NBA fans quite literally hadn't seen all season long. Had Jalen run out of gas?

Spoiler alert: he didn't.

Also a spoiler alert: what he would proceed to do the remainder of the series was generational-level stuff. Superstar stuff. All-time legend stuff. All of that.

Brunson was finally able to get his game off vs Philly's defense, going for 39 points in the Knicks' road Game 3. Embiid's antic-filled 50-point performance, however, spoiled Brunson's night in a double-digit Sixers victory. The big controversy from this game? The lack of a Joel Embiid ejection for his aforementioned antics, which included pulling down Mitchell Robinson by his right leg with Robinson mid-air, earning a Flagrant 1 -- but not a Flagrant 2, which would have sent Embiid to the showers extremely early.

Regardless, multiple Knick players, along with coach Thibs, expressed frustration in the postgame pressers following Game 3's events. Brunson, in particular, made sure he was especially charged up for the next game.

Jalen Brunson takes and makes a floating paint shot over Joel Embiid in Game 4 of Sixers/Knicks.

Jalen Brunson takes and makes a floating paint shot over Joel Embiid in Game 4 of Sixers/Knicks.

Jalen was on point from the get-go in Game 4. He put on a virtuoso-like performance. It was as impressive as it was historic. And his team needed every bit of it.

It's been well-documented in this piece thus far how Jalen Brunson seems to have a... a fetish for silencing doubters. I'm talking, like, fully gets off on it. No Diddy.

I would say that he completely quieted the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center with his dominant 47-point, 10-assist performance... but that wouldn't be exactly accurate with the large Knicks contigent that showed up to the contest.

This was due to a special set of circumstances, such as:

  • Get-in ticket prices for the Knicks home games at Madison Square Garden throughout the series ranging in price from $450-$650,

  • Philadelphia and the Wells Fargo Center being a short drive down the I-95 from NYC with the ticket prices being roughly a third of the cost of MSG's,

  • And the general unbridled insanity of Knicks fans.

It was so very wild to see that significant a chunk of the crowd at Wells Fargo wearing orange and blue. When Brunson hit on a wide-open floater in the middle of the lane with 55 ticks remaining to give his team a 6-pt lead, Knicks fans delivered an incredible crowd pop, making what was supposed to be enemy territory truly sound like MSG South.

Jalen Brunson celebrating after scoring 47 points in the Knicks' Game 4 victory in the first round of the 2024 NBA Playoffs vs the Philadelphia 76ers.

Brunson's 47 points set an all-time Knicks postseason record, surpassing Bernard King's 46 (done on 2 occasions).

That stat doesn't quite signal "overrated" or "overpaid" to me, but what do I know, right?

It did signal "1A" to me, though. Pardon me, Becky.

Brunson carried his torrid stretch into Game 5 back at home, with yet another 40 point performance. However, I guess the Knicks felt bad about Philadelphia's historic collapse in Game 2 and decided to gift a game right back to the Sixers. And Brunson was not at all faultless in New York's meltdown either.

After Tyrese Maxey’s remarkable 7 point run in 30 seconds to force overtime, Brunson opened up the OT period with 5 quick points of his own. Following this, he reduced the Knicks offense to straight isolation, 1-on-1 hoop, which broke NYK’s momentum and allowed the Sixers to get back into it and eventually take the lead. Brunson capped off the collapse with a horrific turnover down 3; passing out of a tough three-point attempt in mid-air, only to toss it into the first row on the baseline, as he and Isaiah Hartenstein brutally miscommunicated.

Jalen Brunson & Isaiah Hartenstein react to a crushing Knick turnover late in New York's Game 5 loss to the Sixers.

Jalen Brunson & Isaiah Hartenstein react to a crushing Knick turnover late in New York's Game 5 loss to the Sixers.

That sealed the Knicks’ fate that night, a historic failure that would force them back to Pennsylvania for an unexpected Game 6.

Not what you want, for sure. But, guess what.

It'd offer Brunson another bounce-back opportunity.

If you've been paying attention thus far... you're now fully cognizant of the fact that he doesn't let those opportunities slip.

Game 6 was a wild and manic affair that wasn't really all that wild and manic if you'd watched every game of the series in full to this point. No matter the advantage either side brought to the table throughout, each game was for sure going down to the wire regardless of everything and anything, just as Nick Nurse stated before the contest tipped off.

The Knicks went up by 22 (!) midway through the 1st quarter -- by far their largest lead of the series. The Sixers stormed back and staged a 32-point turnaround, going up 10 midway through the third. The Knicks stormed right back, because of course they did, and wound up tying the game 83-all on an Anunoby corner three to close the 3rd.

Brunson Time!

Jalen scored 14 of his 41 in the 4th. He hit a three-pointer with 6:24 remaining to break a 95-all tie, and hit another the next trip down with 6:00 left to boost the Knicks' lead to six.

He hit an insane off-balance runner from the right elbow with 4:45 to go to put the Knicks back up 103-98, stunting a potential Sixers spurt.

How about a paint floater from just inside the foul line to push the lead to 8? Yet another "flow-state" Brunson sequence in clutch-time. An insane OG Anunoby dunk on Embiid put the Knicks up 109-101 with under 3 minutes until glory.

Remember Nick Nurse's pregame comments, though. "Nothing matters".

These games would be decided in the final seconds, one way or another. Philly, on cue, went on a 10-2 run t knot the contest at 111. Brunson, after a Thibs timeout, caught the ball in the halfcourt, drove around a Batum/Oubre sandwich, and hit his Roommates Show co-host at the top of the key, uncontested. Josh Hart faked a pass to shed Maxey away, confidently stepped into a three --

-- and knocked down the biggest shot of New York's season, taking full advantage of the attention drawn by Brunson, and the two Nova Wildcat champions combined to deliver a Knicks lead that they would not relinquish. 118-115 final. Knicks in 6, onto Round 2.

Brunson & Hart, in the same arena where their '16 title banner with Villanova hangs, combined to drive the dagger into the Sixers' proverbial chest late in Game 6.

To this point in his career, this series is Jalen Brunson's magnum opus. Here's a few feats he accomplished in the six game battle:

  • Brunson became the 3rd player in NBA history with four consecutive playoff games of 35+ points and 5+ assists, joining LeBron James and Michael Jordan -- @NBAHistory on X

  • Brunson also became just the 7th player in NBA history with 3 consecutive 40+ point games, joining Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Jamal Murray, and Bernard King.

  • And, speaking of Bernard King, Brunson tied King for the most points scored in a Knicks postseason series all-time at 213.

As far as the series in totality, all I can say is, damn. The total point tally from the series overall? Knicks 650, 76ers 649. The series was just the fifth in the HISTORY of the Association to finish with a total point differential of 1 point or less.

So, conflate that last fact with what Brunson was able to accomplish vs Philadelphia here. Every bit of JB's heroics were absolutely needed -- that's the most insane part about his performance. If he had just been a little bit less of what he was here, the Knicks could've been the ones to go down in 6. Or, even 5. Who knows.

But, if "if" was a fifth...

We'd all be as drunk as the Knicks fans in the latest 'Sidetalk' videos.

If Brunson ever delivers these people a championship, New York City will get burned down to the ground. That's not an opinion, it's a fact.

The Knicks still have a ways to go -- both near future and long-term -- towards achieving that goal. And time will tell if Brunson can indeed be the leading man in doing so.

Becky Hammon still technically hasn't been proven wrong yet. Brunson still has a mighty tall task ahead of him, attempting to lead the Knicks to a title as the main cog at 6'1".

But if we've learned anything from his Knick tenure thus far...

Knicks' Jalen Brunson celebrates the New York Knicks' series victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Counting Jalen Brunson out only drives him further & further into his power.


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