Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) talks with official Natalie Sago...

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) talks with official Natalie Sago (9) during the second half of a game against the Miami Heat, Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in Miami. Credit: AP/Lynne Sladky

MIAMI — It wasn’t the most painful loss the Knicks have suffered in Miami. It hurt, nonetheless.

Eleven months after being eliminated in six games by the Heat in the second round of the playoffs, the Knicks were back at the Kaseya Center Tuesday night badly needing a win to help their playoff positioning.

Instead, the Heat held what had been a red-hot Jalen Brunson to 20 points on 5-for-18 shooting en route to a 109-99 victory over their longtime rivals.

The loss was the third straight by the Knicks and dropped them into fifth place in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks (44-31) and Orlando have an identical record, but the Magic own the tiebreaker so they move into fourth place.

The loss also brings up some serious questions about whether this team can continue to put so much pressure on their All-Star guard.

After the team’s morning shootaround, Brunson sounded nasally when talking to reporters. So much so, that midway through the interview a reporter asked him if he was sick.

“I don’t feel the best but I’m fine,” Brunson said.

The truth is Brunson clearly didn’t look fine most of the night. The Heat threw Jimmy Butler and the kitchen sink at Brunson and the end result was that he made just five field goals and was 1-for-6 from three-point range. He also turned the ball over five times, including once in the final two minutes when the game was still in reach.

“I turned the ball over. I missed some shots. Everyone else did their job except for me,” Brunson said, shaking his head after the game. “I just can’t make mental mistakes.”

The Heat were in control for most of the game and led by as many as 16. The Knicks managed to put together a 12-0 run in the fourth quarter and tied the score at 92 with 3:59 left. The Heat, however, started knocking down shots, outscoring the Knicks 17-7 in the final minutes.

Terry Rozier led the Heat with 34 points and was 8-for-11 from three-point range. Donte DiVincenzo led the Knicks with 31 points and Deuce McBride added 24.

The loss came on the same day that Brunson was named the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Month for games played in March.

Brunson has earned Player of the Week honors three times this season, but this is his first Player of the Month award. He was recognized for helping the beat-up Knicks hang onto a No. 4 seed in the East by averaging 28.8 points and 5.8 assists in 13 games in March. Those games also included a career-high 61 points in a loss to Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs on Friday and a 30-point game in a 113-112 loss to Oklahoma City on Sunday.

“Brunson is having an MVP-type season,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before the game when asked how the team planned to defend Brunson. “He’s at that level right now, you’re not taking things away from him at this point. We have to beat the Knicks.”

As San Antonio and Oklahoma City recently found out, you don’t have to contain Brunson in order to beat the Knicks.

“You can’t play great in every game,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said when asked about Brunson’s struggles. “No player in this game does. And so the challenge is to still find a way to win. He did a lot of good things. It wasn’t an A-plus game for him, but he’s going to compete on every possession. That’s all you can ask from anyone.”

“It says 10 free throws here, but he’s getting fouled. I hate to say it. He’s getting fouled.”

Thibodeau then repeated the phrase “He’s getting fouled” five more times before a public relations person ended the news conference.

Notes & quotes: One thing that could be hindering Julius Randle’s return to the court is that the physical nature of his style of play means that his shoulder is going to have to take a beating. Randle, who dislocated his shoulder in a win over the Heat on Jan. 27 at Madison Square Garden, has yet to be cleared for contact. “The thing for him is he has to just keep working every day until he can get to the point where he feels confident he can take the contact that he’s accustomed to,” Thibodeau said before Tuesday’s game.

“When you look at his game and the way he plays, you don’t want him to change his style of play. That’s important. You have to have a belief that it will turn, which I do. Maybe it’s tomorrow. Maybe it’s the day after. Just keep putting everything you have into each day.”

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