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Jalen Brunson’s 39-point Game 3 outburst sullied by disappointing loss to 76ers



Jalen Brunson’s 39-point Game 3 outburst sullied by disappointing loss to 76ers

PHILADELPHIA — Jalen Brunson sat at the podium with a black hoodie draped over the matching durag tied around his forehead and his right hand covering his mouth.

He had finally solved the problems a stingy 76er defense posed through Games 1 and 2 of this first-round playoff series — but on this postgame night, unlike the previous two, there was no reason for Brunson to smile.

The Knicks’ All-Star guard hung 39 points and 13 assists on 13-of-27 shooting from the field — easily his best individual game after two clunkers to open the series — in a get-right game at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, where he once torched nets on occasion as a standout guard for the Villanova Wildcats.

His performance was refreshing given his struggles: Brunson shot a combined 16-of-55 from the field and 2-of-12 from three-point range through the first two games at Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks, however, won those games and entered Thursday with a 2-0 series lead.

That is no longer the case.

Despite Brunson finally locating the bottom of the net, his Knicks lost Game 3 to the Sixers, 125-114, with Game 4 back at his old stomping grounds in a matinee game on Sunday.

“I’m not really worried about what I did,” he said flatly after the game. “Our team lost a game where we gave up 43 points in the third quarter. So my main focus was how we can re-adjust to that.”

High-scoring games for Brunson are nothing new — though Thursday marked his first time in the 30s all season against a Sixers team that’s had his number.

76ers head coach Nick Nurse hasn’t been shy: not about the different options at his disposal in defending Brunson, nor in his praise of the first-time All-Star guard’s scoring abilities.

“He was really good,” Nurse said after Game 3. “I just think he is really good, and I don’t think you’re gonna keep a guy that good down for a whole series.”

Both Nurse, head coach Tom Thibodeau and Brunson’s own teammates have been adamant: These shots the Knicks’ floor general has missed have gone in time and time again this season. Against Kelly Oubre Jr. and Nic Batum, a pair of 6-8 wings the Sixers deploy defensively at the point of attack, Brunson hadn’t been successful prior to Thursday night.

“Yeah, he had a good game, and that’s something we know he’s capable of,” said Josh Hart. “He knows he can make shots, and that’s good in terms of confidence for him going into Sunday. We gotta make sure we’re focused and ready for Sunday.”

Thibodeau, however, has a mouthful of bones to pick, and not just with the officiating in Thursday’s loss. He is continuing a season-long crusade to get his star guard the respect he deserves when getting bumped while driving to the rim.

Brunson did shoot 12 free throws in Game 3 against the Sixers and is averaging nine attempts per game in this first-round series.

Thibodeau, however, was quick to point out that nine of Brunson’s 12 free throws came in the fourth quarter, after the Sixers had already blown the game open by outscoring the Knicks, 43-27, in the third period.

“We’re scoring plenty. We’re scoring a ton of points at a high level, at an efficient level. He did have the team playing well. Like, he didn’t shoot well, but he had the team playing well,” Thibodeau said after Game 3. “And then he ended up with 10, 12 free throws, right? And a lot of those came at the end.”

Thibodeau has made a habit of sending in clips of uncalled fouls on Brunson to the league office for review. Joel Embiid shot 21 free throws in Game 3, while the Knicks shot 19 as a team.

“And so, I’ll look at it again. I’ll send my clips in like I do every game and they’ll say, ‘marginal contact,’” Thibodeau said. “And then we’ll have marginal contact on Embiid, and he’ll be at the line 21 times. So that’s the way it works.”

The league isn’t going to step in now. Not in a marquee first-round playoff matchup that just got exponentially more interesting with the 76ers’ series-saving Game 3 victory on Thursday.

Brunson finally found his shooting rhythm. The Knicks now need to adjust to a Sixers team whose game plan is quite literally to punch first.

“Each game is gonna be different, so you just gotta respond,” Thibodeau said. “This is playoff basketball. It’s gonna go up. It’s gonna escalate, and we gotta bring it. We gotta bring it. My thing is, there’s two teams and they responded and now we gotta respond. We gotta do a lot better. We gotta fix it.”

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