Jalen Brunson of the Knicks reacts after defeating the Pistons at...

Jalen Brunson of the Knicks reacts after defeating the Pistons at Madison Square Garden on Monday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

It should not have come as a surprise to anyone, including Golden State coach Steve Kerr, when the late word came Thursday that Jalen Brunson would be in the starting lineup after sitting out a game with cervical spasms in his neck.

Kerr coached Brunson in the World Cup last summer and coached against him in the Western Conference for years. And in a big spot, with the Knicks in need after losing seven of their last 10 games, Brunson was going to do whatever he could to save the day.

Asked before Thursday night’s game at the Garden if any of the levels that Brunson has reached have surprised him, Kerr didn’t hesitate.

“No, because this has been happening for the last few years,” Kerr said. “We saw Jalen in the West finals with Dallas two years ago and he was such a crucial part of their team. Obviously, he went to another level last year with the Knicks. He’s a great player, a great leader, wonderful guy to coach and get to know, tough to guard. He’s very clever and strong, really a great player.

“He’s great in the paint. He’s great at the elbow areas, great footwork. I think you can see the Villanova influence with him. Jay Wright is a great coach, a great fundamentals coach. When you watched Villanova play during Jay’s time, there was always a sense that they were going to take care of the ball, keep their feet on the ground and make the fundamental play. It’s one of the strengths of their teams.

“Jalen embodies that, and then when you have a guy who’s that strong, all that footwork, he’s even more lethal, because now you get a reverse pivot and he can withstand any blow and run through people and get to the rim or get his shot off using that strength. So he’s really tough.”

It is that last word — tough — that has become as much of a code word as the scoring and footwork and skill for Brunson as he has become one of the NBA’s elite players.

The Madison Square Garden lower bowl was nearly filled an hour before game time Thursday night with kids and adults with their cameras out watching Stephen Curry warm up and then begging for autographs.

Brunson may not draw the crowds that Curry does, but he has heard the MVP chants at the Garden (and nearly every road arena the Knicks have traveled to this season). If he seems a little blue-collar still, an embodiment of coach Tom Thibodeau on the floor, it’s not an accident.

“He’d probably take that as an insult,” Thibodeau said. “The thing is, we have a bunch of guys that, they’re gym rats, they love being in the gym. They work, they’re competitive. We put a lot of value in that. So I think him growing up in the family that he did, his mom and dad, the way he’s just been around the pro game his whole life. He’s a fierce competitor.

“Rick [Brunson, Jalen’s father] is more emotional, he wears his emotion on his sleeve. Jalen is not. You never really know what Jalen is thinking. And that’s probably a good quality to have because I think it allows him to be calm. But he’s been terrific for us.

“I don’t know if we’re kindred spirits. It’s been a lot of fun just to be around him, watching him grow up and just doing the things that he was doing. The basketball part was great — you see it every night. But who he is as a teammate, who he is as a person, that’s special to see.

“It reminds me in some ways of Derrick Rose when he was MVP. He was a great teammate. Obviously, when you’re playing at the level that these guys are playing at, just watching how they interact with their teammates, that’s special.”

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