Jalen Brunson has elevated Knicks, set franchise up for sustained success

Most Knicks fans were probably filled with anxiety on Sunday when Jalen Brunson left the floor at the end of the third quarter. They weren’t alone.

Several Knicks players could be seen peeking over to the tunnel near the visitor’s bench at the start of the fourth, seemingly looking for Brunson. Some Knicks coaches were doing the same thing, periodically looking toward the corridor Brunson exited through due to injury minutes earlier.

Was he coming back? Was he seriously hurt? Can we win without him?

All of those questions were moot a few moments later. Brunson walked through the tunnel with about 10 minutes to go in the fourth.

A crowd of Knicks fans near the team’s bench exploded when they saw Brunson walking back to the court.

I wasn’t alive in May of 1970. I’ve only seen footage of Willis Reed limping through the tunnel at the old Madison Square Garden ahead of Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

It would be absurd, of course, to compare Brunson’s return in Game 4 on Sunday to Reed’s Game 7 heroics.

But what happened in the fourth quarter against Philly – and what’s happened since Brunson arrived in New York – should leave you optimistic that these Knicks have at least a puncher’s chance to reach the stage Reed limped across on May 8, 1970.

Here’s why:


After walking off his knee soreness, Brunson returned to Game 4 with 9:35 to play and the Knicks up, 82-81. He immediately went to work, hitting an absurd runner over Joel Embiid at the end of the shot clock.

The shot was incredible, another moment in one of the best playoff performances in Knicks history. But it took more than Brunson to get to the finish line.

The Knicks’ defense as a unit – Brunson, Miles McBride, Josh Hart, OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa – kept them in the game during an eight-minute scoring drought. They forced Philadelphia to miss 10 of its next 14 shots. In that stretch, Brunson missed five of six and had a turnover. So the outcome could have been much different if the Knicks didn’t clamp down on Philadelphia in the clutch.

Apr 28, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) shoots the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers during the second half of game four of the first round in the 2024 NBA playoffs at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

But they did. And for the second time in the series, the Knicks won a game that will be talked about for years to come.

Now, if the Knicks lose Game 5 and somehow let the series slip away, the Game 2 and Game 4 wins lose some luster. That kind of collapse has only happened to 13 of the 271 teams in NBA history that held 3-1 leads.


The Sixers will be a tough out for the Knicks. But it would be wildly out of character for this Knicks team to lose three straight games. Part of the identity they’ve established is a simple, yet effective one: focus on daily improvement and the game ahead of you.

It sounds like a cliché – and it is. But it also seems like something the Knicks actually put into practice.

Case in point: Brunson’s approach after Games 1 and 2. Brunson shot 29 percent on an average of 27.5 shot attempts in the first two games. "I think he was, I don’t want to say forcing it but he wasn't himself. I think he was missing some shots he normally makes and he was like, 'I gotta get going,'" Josh Hart said Sunday.

Brunson didn’t press after the first two games of the series. He kept it simple.

"Ate dinner with family. Found a way to just relax and breathe, not really worry about what’s going on on the outside," he said. "Just kept my mind right."

He found rhythm in Game 3, making quicker decisions (per Brendan Brown) en route to 39 points (13-for-27) and 13 assists. A day after the loss, Brunson was asked about Mitchell Robinson’s ankle injury. He expressed sympathy for his center. Then he quickly hit on the same theme he and the Knicks have preached all year: how do you improve on what you did yesterday?

"Him fighting back, just having his injury come up again, it’s obviously sad. But I think the most important part of what happens is going forward, how can we stick together?" Brunson said the day before Game 4. "It can’t be a pity party for anyone, no matter what’s going on, because no one’s going to care. How are you going to respond? How are we going to move on? How are we going to be better?"

Apr 28, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) drives against Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr. (9) during the second half of game four of the first round in the 2024 NBA playoffs at Wells Fargo Center.

Less than 24 hours later, Brunson put himself in the Knicks’ history books with a 47-point, 10 assist outing in Game 4. He set the franchise playoff record for single-game scoring, besting Bernard King.

Brunson wasn’t interested in reflecting on the record after the game.

"I’ll look back when I retire. Seriously, it’s great right now. It helped us get a win. But it’s not going to do anything for us going forward," he said.

Again, it sounds like a cliché. But when you watch what Brunson and the Knicks do day in and day out, your cynicism fades.


If you take a macro view of this team, it reads like the kind of script Hollywood would reject. A top agent (Leon Rose) takes over a moribund franchise and turns it around thanks to his godson (Brunson), who is the son of his first NBA client (Rick Brunson). The head coach (Tom Thibodeau) has known the franchise savior since he was seven years old.

That franchise savior is undoing two decades of dysfunction alongside three of his closest college teammates (Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo, Ryan Arcidiacono). We could go on about the initial reaction to Jalen Brunson’s Knicks contract; the fact that Rick Brunson played on one of the last good Knicks teams; Thibodeau's role as an assistant coach on those teams, etc.

Again, this is fairytale stuff. The kind of story Hollywood would deems too impractical for adult audiences.

Maybe this particular story doesn’t have a Hollywood ending. Maybe Jalen Brunson’s Knicks never win an NBA title. Maybe they meet the same fate as the Knicks teams Rick Brunson played for. We’ll see how it all plays out over the next few years.

But the idea that Brunson and the Knicks are one win away from the second round of the playoffs shouldn’t be glossed over. This Knicks team would be the first to reach the second round in consecutive seasons since 1999-2000.

If you look at the age of the core here, the culture that they’ve seemingly established and a consistent competency from the front office, it’s easy to see how these Knicks can contend for several years to come.

Obviously, they have to stay healthy and have things break their way. But for the first time in a long time, the Knicks are set up for sustained success. No matter what happens in Game 5 against Philly and beyond, that in and of itself is an accomplishment.