Knicks guard Jalen Brunson, with his right hand wrapped, looks...

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson, with his right hand wrapped, looks on during a timeout in the second half of an NBA game against the\ Rockets at Madison Square Garden on Monday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It was safe to claim that Wednesday night’s game against the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden was the biggest game of the season for the Knicks. So it was also safe to assume that Jalen Brunson was not going to miss it.

So shortly before the Knicks took the court to face the Heat, with a chance to almost certainly eliminate any shot at the Heat catching them for the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, the team announced that Brunson was available to play.

The Knicks point guard — and arguably most valuable player — had missed the prior two games after suffering what the team called a sprained right hand a week ago against the Heat in Miami. While the team had been vague in his recovery and even his injury with Brunson trying to hide the splint on his right hand last week, it was a safe assumption that if Brunson could play he would.

It was fitting that it was Pat Riley’s Heat that served as the opposition, for the rivalry, for the importance of the game and for a throwback to the toughness and culture that Riley instilled in the Knicks glory days in the 1990s. It's a lineage that runs through the current Knicks coach, Tom Thibodeau. 

Riley had a durability chart set up for the players — listing practices, shootarounds and games with each player getting a check mark for each one they participated in. It remained when Jeff Van Gundy was coach and Thibodeau laughed, but admitted he has it, too.

“Well it's not probably as visible as it once was,” Thibodeau said. “And here’s the thing, style of play changes over time. You can play fast, you can play slow, but what wins remains the same — hard work discipline, togetherness, unselfishness, sacrifice, all those things, dependability, thinking on your feet . . . toughness. Those are things that Pat stands for. 

“And I think that dependability thing, you have to be able to count on each other. Are you going to be there every day? Are you going to be there every game? And that's meaningful, I think, particularly if you're a young team, for any team for that matter, but to improve, you have to work. I don't think anything great was ever achieved without great effort. I've been around a long time. I look at all this stuff going on. So that's just what I see.”

Brunson said earlier this season, “If I can walk I can play,” and he has held true to that much of the season. But a foot injury and then this hand injury have sidelined him for seven of the last 11 games after missing just two games in the first 63. 

While Thibodeau has preached that every game is important, this game did have an added significance since the Knicks entered the night with a three-game lead on the Heat in the standings. A Knicks win would not only up it to four games, but give them the tiebreaker in head-to-head meetings. But a Heat win would cut it to two games and give the Heat the tiebreaker since they would be 2-2 against each other and it would then go to the second tiebreaker, a division winner.

So Brunson was an important part of what would happen.

“Go through practice, go through the rehab part of it and do everything you need to do,” Thibodeau said. “And then everyone do their job. That’s the way I approach that. Our doctors, our trainers. Obviously, Jalen has a say in that as well. And then make a good decision. And that’s what we felt was best for him and our team at that time. Now take that a couple days later, now let’s see where we are. So if everything is good, he’ll be out there."


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