How Knicks can counteract the defensive attention on Jalen Brunson come playoff time

Ever since Julius Randle went down with a separated shoulder in late January, most of the Knicks' offensive creation has naturally stemmed from their star point guard Jalen Brunson. With that, the majority of opposing defensive attention has fallen on him, whether by throwing wing-sized defensive aces at him or blitzing him with double teams.

The playoffs are likely to be more of the same. Luckily, the Knicks have had last year’s postseason and these past two months to prepare and adapt for the onslaught headed Brunson’s way. Here are the ways you can expect them to counteract this level of defensive focus and get Brunson and others easy looks...

Brunson’s most deadly play is the pick-and-roll, where he can pick apart nearly any coverage thrown his way. If the defender drops, he can step into a jumper or has a lane to attack. If they switch, he can manipulate defenses into an ideal matchup, and he can blow through a hedge unless it’s perfectly executed. 

That leaves many defenses, as we’ve seen this season and prior, to simply double Brunson whenever he’s screened on the ball. This surrounds him with two usually taller defenders, forcing a dribble out or pass.

Brunson has gotten plenty used to this treatment, though, and is developing counters. He now anticipates the blitzes and finds quick pocket passes to his screener, who is usually Isaiah Hartenstein.

The Knicks' starting center didn’t begin the season that way, backing up Mitchell Robinson until the latter hurt his ankle. But taking over that spot has been a surprisingly positive development for Brunson and the team, as Hartenstein's offensive capabilities open up much more than Robinson's.

Hartenstein is a sharp and willing passer, as we’ve seen on a variety of plays. He can also dribble drive into post-ups and floaters if need be, shooting an impressive 71.2 percent at the rim and 55.9 percent from three-to-ten feet.

That package offers Brunson the perfect short roll outlet when he’s trapped, setting Hartenstein up for a four-on-three he can capitalize better on than most bigs. He can find cutters or open weak side shooters, or if he’s being ignored can take a couple dribbles and get to the rack.

Brunson has gone to the Hartenstein pick-and-roll heavily in recent wins, as the big has consistently made the right decisions and burned defenses for overplaying Brunson. Once they adjust, he can get back to work.

Apr 5, 2024; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso (6) defends New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) during the first quarter at United Center.

But the Knicks will need more than one trick up their sleeve. One thing we saw plenty of in the 2023 playoffs was a wing like Josh Hart screening for Brunson instead, making for softer double teams to break and a wilier short roll option.

Expect more of that this postseason, not just with Hart but with Deuce McBride, OG Anunoby and Bojan Bogdanovic -- especially if defenses turn back to switching or hedging.

A couple of other twists the Knicks have employed rarely but effectively are rejecting the screen and inverted pick-and-rolls. The former is still a favorite of Brunson’s, but he hasn’t relied on it as much, possibly saving it for the playoffs.

As a screener comes to meet Brunson, the two defenders converge around it, but instead he explodes in the opposite direction of his big, ideally beating one defender to find a lane with an advantage. His speed and strength made this play deadly against Cleveland’s thin guards and wings.

Inverted pick-and-rolls -- in which Brunson is the screener for somebody instead -- are even more infrequent, especially with Randle out as they’d usually run them with him. However, there should be more of this come the playoffs with Donte DiVincenzo, Hart and Bogdanovic handling the ball.

Brunson is a stocky point guard who sets solid screens when asked to, and doing so can lead to favorable switches or defensive mistakes with Brunson leaking out for jumpers. That’s just one way of making him effective away from the ball.

In general, New York has opened up Brunson’s game more by getting him away from the ball. He’s recorded more cuts and off-screen shooting in recent weeks than usual, which has helped him average over 30 points on efficient shooting despite the team missing multiple starters.

These are coming off set plays and freelance movement, with the latter helped by his growing chemistry with Hartenstein. The two are connecting in multiple ways when the big plays out of the high post.

The playoff grind is never an easy one, and is only made tougher with New York down a leading scorer. But the Knicks have shown they can still compete with anybody as long as they have Brunson, and will do everything they can to maximize his game when it matters most.