Jalen Brunson has quickly turned into the Knicks’ offensive engine late in games, showcasing his impressive combination of finesse and power.
The Knicks were trailing 111-110 late in the fourth quarter. The team was on the verge of being swept by a tanking San Antonio Spurs team, an embarrassment, a debacle. Jalen Brunson had the ball, guarded by Spurs rookie forward Jeremy Sochan, as had been the case most of the night. Brunson used the screen from Julius Randle to free himself up and get to the rim, giving the Knicks a 112-111 lead.
Once again, this time with two minutes left and the score where he had left it at 112-111, Brunson was being guarded by Keldon Johnson. Instead of driving, this time Brunson pulled up from his favorite spot above the free throw line and sank a midrange jumper to extend the lead.
the closer pic.twitter.com/cP69UG1JcP
— Mike Cortez 🇵🇷 (@CortezEra) January 5, 2023
The next possession, Brunson once again found himself matched up with Johnson. As he did the previous time, Brunson calmly walked Johnson to his spot and drained the dagger. The Knicks would hold on to win 117-114.
38 FOR JALEN BRUNSON pic.twitter.com/tobpkSmW4R
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 5, 2023
Performances like this, especially in the clutch, have become the norm for Brunson. The Spurs threw their best defenders at the diminutive guard down the stretch, and depending on who was on him, Brunson knew how to break the player down. He took the bigger Sochan off the dribble. He posted up smaller guards. When he was given too much room he pulled the jumper.
The ease with which Brunson has become the Knicks’ best player has surprised even the strongest of his supporters, though team brass should not be totally surprised, they had had a front-row view of Brunson auditioning for the role during the Dallas Mavericks’ playoff run last summer.
In the three games the Mavericks were without Luka Dončić, Brunson stepped into the closing role with zero apprehension, averaging 32.0 points per game. Down the stretch, it was Brunson who fought off Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz. Brunson returned to the second-fiddle role for the rest of the playoffs but brought that confidence of being the top dog to New York.
“I feel like I strive to be the best player every time I step on the court,” Brunson said after another successful closing effort in a win against the Indiana Pacers, “first and foremost.” In that game, Brunson poured in 34 points and helped keep the Pacers from completing a 20-plus point comeback.
The Knicks have not had a true killer that can shut a team down in the closing minutes since the days of Carmelo Anthony. The team has gone through many names, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett coming the closest, but neither ever seizing the role on a consistent basis.
What makes Brunson so good for the role is how perfectly he incorporates a killer instinct with his high-IQ decision-making. It is a rare sight to see Brunson make mental errors, particularly in late-game situations.
Brunson was the steady presence needed to play with the pedal-to-the-medal duo of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett. Both Randle and Barrett possess the killer instinct – Barrett has the most go-ahead or tying baskets on the team – but neither has the go-to moves or sense of pacing that Brunson has.
The crunch-time numbers tell the story. In the clutch, which the NBA defines as when the scoring margin is within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining in a game, Brunson has scored 99 points, the third-highest mark in the league.
His shooting numbers are even more impressive, connecting 52.4% of his shots from the field and 50.0% from three. Conversely, Randle has shot 27.3% from the field and 12.5% from deep, and Barrett has shot 30.8% from the field.
The key to Brunson’s success has been his consistent bag of moves. Brunson credits longevity as the secret to his bag’s effectiveness. On paper, it is nothing special, until you realize he is using a 6’1 frame to bully defenders, regardless of their size. For context, legendary Knick scribe and the undisputed king of fun stats, Chris Herring, found that through Monday Brunson has 26 and-ones on the season and had his shot blocked 23 times.
He has the strength to bang down low, the shooting touch to pull up from any spot, and the handle to put even the peskiest of defenders into the spin cycle.
BRUNSON COOKS CARUSO!! pic.twitter.com/AANv678QNb
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) December 15, 2022
Even when he has been unsuccessful, as was the case with his last-second shot against the Raptors in overtime on Monday, he has the mentality of a closer. He got to his spot, found a way to get open, and got the shot off – it just didn’t go in. Afterward, he said what you’d want him to say.
“I wasn’t thinking at all” Jalen said of his last shot. “I thought it was an open shot.” pic.twitter.com/tKGZhY1MWn
— Barbara Barker (@meanbarb) January 16, 2023
The late-game success – the Knicks are 5-3 in games decided by three points or less – is part of a larger development as Brunson ascends to the top of the food chain. Brunson has stuck to his core mission of making Randle and Barrett’s lives easier without sacrificing their looks.
Randle and Barrett have remained heavily involved (all three average around 17 attempts per game) in the offense, as has Quentin Grimes. The chemistry developed quickly, giving the Knicks something they lacked for quite some time: a good half-court offense.
For the first two years of the Tom Thibodeau era, the halfcourt was the danger zone for the Knicks. If the offensive blackhole Elfrid Payton was not playing, it was out-of-position Alec Burks or Kemba Walker on his last legs. It was a big reason Thibodeau had to turn to Derrick Rose for the last bit of magic during the 2021 playoff run. Beyond Thibodeau, Brunson has been the most effective starting guard since Raymond Felton’s first run with Amar’e Stoudemire.
With such poor point guard play for so many years, the half-court offense was often clunky, stagnant, and unwatchable. Brunson has drastically shifted that dynamic. The starting lineup has an offensive rating of 122.9, which puts them only behind the Golden State Warriors among starting fives.
Expectations were high when the team made it the worst-kept secret in the league that Brunson was their top target last summer. $104 million seemed like a lot for someone who had never made an All-Star seemed high, but all the team was looking for was a real starting point guard. Brunson has been just that and so much more.