Knicks' Jalen Brunson proves Gregg Popovich right with 'monster' game vs. Spurs

Jan 4, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) brings the ball up court against San Antonio Spurs guard Malaki Branham (22) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden.
Jan 4, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) brings the ball up court against San Antonio Spurs guard Malaki Branham (22) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Before the San Antonio Spurs and Knicks faced off at Madison Square Garden, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told the media that he wanted his team to focus on Jalen Brunson.

Why? Because he wasn’t on the floor the last time these two met -- a 122-115 loss for the Knicks -- and that the first-year Knick is simply a “monster.”

"I want them to recognize that Brunson will be on the floor tonight. He wasn't there last time. He's a monster," Popovich said before the game. "He has such a toughness about him, high basketball IQ. He really tests your discipline. … He’s also unselfish, he shoots it. Concentrating on him is pretty important.”

Well, the Spurs didn’t necessarily get the memo as the 26-year-old scored a regular season career-high 38 points to lead the Knicks to a 117-114 win.

It could also be that Brunson was just on his game Wednesday night. He had a career-high 13 points after the first quarter and 27 points through three en route to his 38/7/6 performance. And New York needed all 38 of those points to pull out the victory, but it definitely wasn’t by design.

“Whatever it takes to win. I could have 38, or I could have three points. If we win, that's all I really care about,” Brunson said after the game. “That’s been my goal and mindset, and that’s the mindset of this team. And we have to keep it going. But it does feel good with the win.”

“He had it going pretty good,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said of Brunson’s night. “[The Spurs] have a lot of versatility with the way they can switch, and I thought he made really good reads and he got into the paint, and he did a lot of stuff that we needed.”

During that loss on Dec. 29 the Knicks didn’t have Brunson, who was missing his second straight game with a sore hip. New York would miss free throws and the lack of a floor general was evident as they fell to the 12-26 Spurs.

When he was with the Dallas Mavericks the last five years, Brunson played against Popovich a lot, so the coach has first-hand knowledge of the Villanova product’s skills. But their connection goes a little deeper.

Brunson’s college coach, Jay Wright, was under Popovich with Team USA, so there’s plenty of respect between the two.

“He’s a Hall-of-Famer. He’s one of the best coaches to be in this game,” Brunson said when asked about Popovich’s pregame compliments. “I have nothing but respect for Pop. He’s phenomenal. Great guy to talk to. He’s real special. It’s a pleasure to see coach Pop and I respect everything about him.”

With a career night with the Knicks behind him, Brunson and the team can now look to win their fourth straight game when they travel to Toronto to take on the Raptors on Friday.