MIAMI — Jalen Brunson was asked a question, simple and maybe a little vague, after the Knicks concluded their final practice before flying to Miami to take on the Heat in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Battling what the team has also vaguely called a sore right ankle, Brunson was asked, would you say you’re 75% right now?
“I would say I’m ready to go,” Brunson said as if there ever was a doubt.
For games early in the season, a giveaway for many players in this era of load management, Brunson has said, “If I can walk I can play.” Now, for this, a critical spot in the second round of the playoffs, the sort of game that New York’s fans, and maybe even their players, have dreamed of? No doubt.
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has left it open, however, acknowledging that Brunson did most of the workout Friday but was unwilling to commit to Brunson’s status for Saturday.
But there is little doubt that Brunson will play, as will Julius Randle, who has been working through a sprained left ankle. The Knicks may prepare for any eventuality but it also would be a shock if Miami’s Jimmy Butler wasn’t back in the lineup after sitting out Game 2 with a sprained right ankle.
“I think that’s this time of the year,” Thibodeau said. “It’s a credit to them. Most teams have guys that are nicked up, the intensity of these games, what you go through the course of the season. So being mentally tough when you face some adversity, you have to be able to get through things.
"Obviously, we don’t want anyone playing who’s injured, but most guys have something this time of year so to get out there and find a way to get it done and I think when you invest a lot into the team, you don’t want to walk away from that. You want to be in that and we have guys that have put a lot into it.”
The injuries — Randle sitting out Game 1 and Butler out in Game 2 — have had no small impact on the split in New York of the first two games. Neither team has been at full strength, but that is a part of surviving through the grind of the postseason — and why both teams were happy to have a three-day breather before resuming the series.
“Honestly I think it helps both sides, them and us,” Brunson said. “Obviously, you feel well rested but we’re itching to play and we’re ready to go now. Just got to take 1 day at a time, playing the cards you’re dealt and you can’t look past anybody. You can’t look at them differently if they’re not at full strength. You just have to go out there and do what you gotta do, no matter what the circumstance is."
The Knicks have been a strong road team throughout the year, to the point of it being an oddity — with the team posting a better record away from Madison Square Garden (24-17) than at home (23-18) during the regular season.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Knicks split the first two games in Cleveland, swept two games at home, and returned to Cleveland to finish off the series.
They are not the only ones doing this in the postseason. Miami won two of three from top-seeded Milwaukee on the road in the first round, finishing that series off there. The last three games of Boston's 4-2 series win over Atlanta all had the road team winning. Philadelphia already split in Boston in the other Eastern Conference semifinal series.
“On the road, you’re in a hotel with your team,” Brunson said. “It’s just you guys. So you have to have a mindset of us against the world. You’re playing in a hostile environment. You’re not playing at home. You don’t have the luxury of being at home. So on the road, your focus is just a little different. It’s a credit to how you prepare. How our coaching staff prepares us. We just go out there knowing that it’s just us out there and not really worrying about anything else.
“It’s two parts of it,” Josh Hart said. “I think when you go on the road there’s less distractions. You’re not worried about family, tickets, where are you going to eat after the game. You have nothing. It’s only basketball. Being able to do that with the guys in the locker room, the coaching staff, the front office. So sometimes you’re able to be locked in a little bit more.
“Then we play for the Knicks — Knicks fans, they show up wherever we play, whether it’s Oklahoma City or, I know you guys were down in Miami the end of the year and we were having “Let’s go Knicks’ chants, you know what I mean. I think it’s the camaraderie that we have, being able to be locked in and focused and the Knicks fanatics that travel and show up.”
With Evan Barnes