Knicks guard Jalen Brunson looks on against the Bulls in...

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson looks on against the Bulls in the second half of an NBA game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

GREENBURGH — When reports began to surface Monday of the nearly complete Team USA roster for the upcoming Paris Olympics and Jalen Brunson was left off the list, it was just the latest subject of debate surrounding the Knicks point guard.

And his reaction?

“I was just focused on the playoffs,” Brunson said after Tuesday’s practice. “I didn’t look at the list.”

This is no different from asking him about the Most Valuable Player race or his place on the All-NBA team balloting. For Brunson, who keeps no trophies or banners in his home, it is another distraction from the task at hand: the Knicks' playoff run. Brunson has said the trophies are at his parents' home for someday when his playing career is over.

The preparation for the Knicks has been ongoing, even if they won’t find out their first-round opponent until Wednesday night when the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers face off with the winner getting the seventh seed and a matchup with the Knicks.

And for Brunson, in particular, the focus and study work is crucial because while Knicks coaches and scouts are already working on both possible opponents, both of those teams are also peering toward the next task of trying to stop Brunson.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is one of the most meticulously prepared NBA coaches, but the coaches who are facing off Wednesday, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Philadelphia’s Nick Nurse, are also top-tier coaches.

NBA coaches have been trying to figure out a way to contain Brunson as he ascends to a new level seemingly every game. He began to move out of the shadow of his second-round pick status in the 2022 playoffs with Dallas when he averaged 27.8 points per game against Utah as Luka Doncic was sidelined for part of the series. Last season with the Knicks he averaged 24 points against Cleveland in the first round and then 31 points against Miami in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

 Last year he was part of a two-headed offensive monster for the Knicks along with Julius Randle. But with Randle sidelined since Jan. 27  and lost for the playoffs after undergoing shoulder surgery, the load has been on Brunson’s shoulders.  Brunson has responded by averaging 31.5 points since Randle has been sidelined. In the last 10 games of the season as the Knicks secured the No. 2 seed he averaged 37.8 points, including 39.4 with 7.6 assists in the five-game winning streak to end the season.

So Spoelstra and Nurse, while focused on Wednesday, are undoubtedly figuring out how to slow Brunson down.

“You guys have seen it all year,” Thibodeau said. “Jalen’s been in the playoffs before. He understands what’s coming. You’ve got to prepare for it. We have a lot of respect for both teams. For us, we have to execute. That’s what this is about. It’s mental, it’s physical. It’s being locked in. But hopefully you’re building the right habits all year long. That’s the challenge. If you look at what [Joel] Embiid brings to a defense, look at what Bam [Adebayo] and [Jimmy] Butler bring to a defense, but you’re dealing with that all year as well.”

“I don’t change my game,” Brunson said. “The approach stays the same and if anything [it] intensifies a little bit. You just have to have the same mentality no matter what. Just go in there and find a way to do whatever it takes.”

So with a defense geared up to stop him, how can he improve on the numbers that he put up in the postseason last year?

“By winning it,” Brunson said. “All that individual stuff is fine, but to be better you just win.”

Notes & quotes: Mitchell Robinson, who was limited to seven minutes Sunday after the medical staff made him unavailable after he tweaked his surgically repaired left ankle, was a full participant in practice . . . Donte DiVincenzo, despite playing in 81 games and ranking 48th in the NBA in total minutes played, is ineligible for postseason awards. Most Improved Player is the one he was likely going to get significant support. He was a reserve to start the season and played 62 games of more than 20 minutes, which, with only two games allowed in the 15-20-minute range to count, was not enough to meet the 65-game qualification.


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