Be Like Mike! Knicks’ Jalen Brunson is shredding postseason defenses

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This was Jalen Brunson’s moment. Donte DiVincenzo would make sure of that.

The two New York Knicks sat in front of reporters following Brunson’s Game 1 blowup against the Indiana Pacers, a 43-point performance that has become run of the mill for the All-Star point guard. These days, a Brunson scoring outburst is about as rare as a Tom Thibodeau broken blood vessel.

Brunson has now gone for 40 points in four consecutive playoff games. The only other players in league history to accomplish the same feat are Jerry West, who had a six-game streak, Michael Jordan (four) and Bernard King (four).

As a reporter listed off Brunson’s impressive company, DiVincenzo noted one standout and interrupted.

“Michael Jordan,” he said excitedly, turning to Brunson as a wide smile overpowered his cheeks.

Brunson looked at his buddy as if DiVincenzo were teasing him about a 0 of 20 dud.

“If you know my friends,” Brunson said the next day, “You should know that they’re all a——-. … Usually, they’re all sarcastic and so I just tried to stop him before he kept going.”

The best of friends show kindness only behind each other’s backs. And behind Brunson’s is a shrine of accomplishments that is exciting DiVincenzo more by the second.

Brunson is the first player in NBA history with 40 points and five assists in four consecutive playoff games. He’s just the second guy ever, behind only West, with five straight playoff games of 39-plus.

He’s averaging 36.6 points during the postseason, which leads the NBA, to go with 8.6 assists. The only player to have those numbers for a postseason run was Russell Westbrook, who did it in 2016-17 on far less efficient shooting and in only five games, four of which his team lost.

“I’m so proud of him, just knowing what type of person he is,” DiVincenzo said of Brunson. “He doesn’t take praise and accolades and all that stuff. He doesn’t take it well. He’s always trying to get better. He always knows there’s going to be more doubters, more things to improve on. That’s his beauty as a person.”

The Pacers, who trail the Knicks 1-0 in their second-round series, are witnessing the basketball beauty.

Indiana tossed various defenders at Brunson in Game 1, a 121-117 New York victory. The long, physical Aaron Nesmith manned him to start. Andrew Nembhard, a hard-nosed guard, took over later. Point guard TJ McConnell, who Josh Hart so affectionately referred to as “an annoying little s—” earlier this week, squared up Brunson, as well.

None of it led to much success.

Brunson’s 43 points came on 14-of-26 shooting; he sank all 14 of his free throws. The Pacers were one of the worst fouling culprits during the regular season. It showed.

These are the types of shots the Knicks can expect from Brunson in this series. Indiana’s defenders notoriously stick to potential shooters who line the perimeter. It prevents 3-point attempts, which the Pacers rarely give up. And it funnels drivers into center Myles Turner, one of the league’s premier rim protectors. But it also leaves the middle open.

No one allowed more shots in the paint during the regular season than Indiana did. The trend continued into Game 1, including for Brunson. Fifteen of his shots were inside the paint, many of them in the floater range that Brunson can feast from while neutralizing Turner’s shot-blocking.

Brunson may have gotten hot during the previous series when the Knicks downed the Philadelphia 76ers in six games, but it wasn’t because Philly gave him the middle.

The Sixers surrounded him with long defenders, many of whom collapsed onto him whenever he neared the hoop. Eventually, he figured it out, going for 39 points in Game 3, 47 in Game 4, 40 in Game 5 and 41 in the clinching Game 6.

Few people have reached these numbers — not that Brunson would boast about himself any more than his friends would to his face.

“I understand what’s going on, so it’s definitely obviously pretty cool, and it makes it better to know that it comes off a win most importantly, but honestly no matter what the situation was, whether it was positive or negative, I have to come back and be better,” Brunson said. “Last series, the first two games I was awful, and for me, I do have to be better, so I have to put that in the back of my mind. This is the same thing.”

The Pacers trapped Brunson in moments, but he got rid of the ball quickly. They full-court pressured him, which the Knicks expected, especially since Indiana did the same against the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1. The strategy is an attempt to tire out Brunson while also bogging down the Knicks offense. If it takes New York a few extra seconds to get into its first action, it won’t be as likely to score.

Yet, Brunson picking apart the Pacers in Game 1 wasn’t despite his team’s success.

The Knicks shot 53.7 percent from the field and 11 of 23 from 3. They dropped 121 points on only 98 possessions, an elite figure.

“The thing that’s impressive, it’s always within the context of winning and his teammates and that’s always the most important thing to him,” Thibodeau said. “And I love his mentality because his mentality is that he’s not satisfied.”

And now, he’s showing up on lists with Michael Jordan — even if he won’t acknowledge the accomplishment and even if he worries his friends will use it as pure jeer fuel.

“He knows what he’s doing but he doesn’t address it. He’s just trying to get better every single day,” DiVincenzo said. “Not being him and looking on the outside, I love it. I sure as hell love it. I will celebrate every day of the week. That’s who he is as a person, not just a basketball player.”

(Top photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)





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