Jalen Brunson Might Be Sore, But He Can Still Cook The Pacers

Every team is banged up at this phase of the postseason, but after a Game 4 blowout by the Pacers, the Knicks’ accrued injuries and aches seemed unusually dire. It was clear that a series win would require two typical offensive performances from their stout godhead Jalen Brunson, though it wasn’t all that clear if they’d get them. That ambiguity had less to do with any particular Pacers defender or scheme, and more to do with Brunson’s own body. Since Game 2, the orchestrator of the Knicks’ offense had been bothered by a sore right foot; through Games 3 and 4, he seemed to be finally worn down by relentlessly driving on it.

The Knicks had one day of rest before they returned to New York for Game 5, where Brunson offered home fans a quick, blunt self-evaluation: The foot was at least good enough for 28 first-half points. With a total of 44 scored by Brunson, this depleted Knicks team wrecked the Pacers, 121-91, to draw within a game of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 24 years. For a team that has specialized in harrowing playoff nail-biters this spring, here, finally, was a blowout.

Tuesday’s game was Brunson’s fifth 40-piece of the postseason, and he achieved it because the Pacers don’t have anyone who can stay in front of him. Aaron Nesmith’s size doesn’t bother him. He scarcely seems to register Andrew Nembhard in his field of vision, already looking ahead to the next line of defense. Tyrese Haliburton is vigilantly hunted on defensive switches. Brunson turned the paint into his living room, scoring 13 of his 18 field goals there, off his usual array of fades, flips, floaters, and wrong-foot finishes. If you had become desensitized to the nightly spectacle, here was a bracing reminder: Jalen Brunson is so cool and makes no sense. If one were to look only at his shot chart and guess the size of the corresponding player, they might overshoot his 6-foot-2 height by about seven inches.

Nobody else in the league scores quite like Brunson, who makes a sumptuous meal of a little guard’s least favorite shots. While he’s had plenty of scoring outbursts in his Knicks tenure, none had higher stakes than last night’s masterpiece. By the time he hit 40—courtesy of a leg-flailing reverse layup as four Pacers collapsed around him—the game was effectively over, with just under eight minutes still to play.

As much as Brunson shone, it was a Knicks-wide win, explicable in brutally stark numbers. Head coach Tom Thibodeau made a smart adjustment and was rewarded with deeply Thibsian effort on the glass. The Knicks elected to go smaller for Game 5, starting Deuce McBride over Precious Achiuwa to give Brunson some added spacing in a guard-heavy lineup, and nevertheless won the rebounding battle, 53-29. They pulled down 20 offensive rebounds, a dozen of which came courtesy of Isaiah Hartenstein, who had his best game of the playoffs. As a direct consequence of this board dominance, the Knicks attempted 101(!) field goals to the Pacers 72. That proved an insurmountable gap for the Pacers, who couldn’t get their supercharged offense humming anyway: Haliburton—who was listed as questionable before the game with three different injuries—only attempted nine shots.

The Knicks, who benefited from the rare event of excellent minutes from Alec Burks in a second-round playoff game, are down to the grimmest dregs of their rotation. Key starter OG Anunoby, who missed the last two games, has reportedly advanced his hamstring rehab from the swimming pool to the basketball court, but probably won’t be back before the end of the series. There is no more help coming. For the only competent Knicks point guard (and overall most beloved Knick) of my adult life, the task ahead remains simple: Jalen Brunson has two more games to find one more performance like this.

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