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When it comes to great playoff Knicks, doesn’t get better than Jalen Brunson

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Jalen Brunson didn’t just carry the Knicks again on Tuesday night, it was even more than that because he’s more than that now, it feels as if he’s carrying the whole idea of what they’re trying to do and where they’re trying to go, which means to Boston. Now Brunson gets another night off before he and his teammates head back to Indianapolis and try to finish the job against the Pacers. So he’ll catch his breath in the greatest basketball postseason the city has ever seen, by any great Knick, in an era, however and whenever this all ends.

Eleven games for him so far in this postseason. Five dazzling performances of 40 points or more. In the history of the NBA here are the guys who have done more than that in a single year: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Jerry West, Allen Iverson. That is the historic company Brunson now keeps.

That is the kind of 11 that No. 11 has rolled so far.

“[Brunson] is an incredible player,” his coach Tom Thibodeau said after Game 5, Thibodeau’s Knicks having gotten up again after getting knocked down the way they were in Game 4 in Indy.

The Knicks were absolutely as much of a team as they’ve ever been on Tuesday night. But then, they are as much of a team as the Knicks have had since 2000, the last time any Knicks team made it as far as the Eastern Conference finals. Only this feels bigger than that, and better, and louder and more important to Knicks fans because of everything that has happened since then, so much of it bad.

How could the Mavericks been so wrong about this guy?

Brunson clearly was not himself in the two games the Knicks lost to the Pacers in Indianapolis when the Pacers squared the series. He was a step slow, at least, had no lift, missed shots he had been making since the start of the series against the 76ers. By then Brunson had set the bar so high for himself, in this playoff series in the NBA when the only more important player has been Nikola Jokic, the MVP of the league again, that when he scored 26 and 29 in those games it was as if he’d barely shown up.

Thibodeau: “I just love how there’s never any excuse-making for him.”

And when it was over on Tuesday night, the opposing coach, Rick Carlisle, whose defense once again watched Brunson go wherever he wanted to go on offense whenever he wanted to, said this:

“Their level of fight was greater than our own.”

It mattered, of course, and mightily. But what mattered more and mattered the most was this: Thibodeau had Brunson and Carlisle did not, on a night at the Garden when Brunson scored 32 of his 44 in the paint. A guard who is listed at 6-2 and doesn’t really look 6-2 once again played like a giant of his sport and continued to make April and May of 2024 a basketball time that will be remembered whether the Pacers come all the way back, or whether the Knicks got knocked off in the round after this. And maybe the very best part of it all is that Brunson is still just 27 years old. There is no reason to think he might only just be getting started.

Brunson runs the show and owns this Garden the way Clyde Frazier owned his. But Clyde, the best all-around Knick of them all, had all those Hall of Famers with him, Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley and, later, Earl (The Pearl) Monroe. As admirable as these Knicks are, all that fight in them that Carlisle talked about, they right now are starting one player who started the first game of their regular season, and that is Brunson.

Julius Randle is hurt and Mitchell Robinson is hurt and RJ Barrett and Quentin Grimes are long gone. OG Anunoby, such a huge difference-maker for them after the Knicks got him in a trade with Toronto, is hurt again. But the way the Knicks looked without him on Tuesday night in Game 5, there are plenty Knick fans I know who are perfectly willing to take their chances with the Celtics, if it comes to that, if Anunoby gets healthy and looks the way he did, at both ends of the court, the way he did when the Knicks first got him.

But as much as Thibodeau has gotten from the other ‘Nova Knicks especially — Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo — this is all about Brunson, the son or Rick Brunson, an old Knick, the kid who grew up, as Jeff Van Gundy told me one time, “dribbling the ball up and down the hallway at the Garden.” He has gone from that to this, No. 11 rolling this kind of 11 and looking like a Knick who has taken his place with the best they’ve ever had. You hear a lot about a puncher’s chance in sports. Brunson is that for these Knicks.

He took two minutes off in Game 5, the Pacers started to come back, Brunson came back and all of a sudden the Knicks went off on a 9-0 rip, and were going to win again. Now he gets a day off to catch his breath. We all do.

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