SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Knicks proved in Boston on Sunday that they could win without Jalen Brunson, surviving a double-overtime battle thanks in large part to the player who took his spot in the starting lineup, Immanuel Quickley. But on Tuesday, they showed that maybe it’s not points or assists that matter most when Brunson is missing.
With Brunson sidelined, the Knicks fell apart, turning a 16-point second-half lead into a disappointing collapse against the struggling Charlotte Hornets as their winning streak ended at nine games. The Knicks talked afterward about fatigue and a lack of energy. Brunson provides that energy every night.
“I think we didn’t play our style of basketball,” Josh Hart said after the loss. “We didn’t play winning basketball. I think sometimes when you’re winning games, it doesn’t always mean that you’re playing winning basketball. I think that’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to continue to trust each other, move the ball on the offensive end and do our thing on the defensive end.
“In a game like this, obviously it’s tough coming off two tough games and getting in at 1 a.m. I’m sure we were probably a little tired, but a game like this, especially down one of our best players, has got to be a game where the ball has energy, we were moving the ball, and we end up with 25, 26, 27 assists and everyone is playing well. That energy translates to the defensive end. We just got to get back to playing winning basketball.”
The missing piece was Brunson, who seems to have willed the Knicks into contention.
His numbers are eye-popping, as he entered Thursday averaging 23.9 points and 6.2 assists, including 28.6 points in his last 15 games, far exceeding what many expected when the Knicks signed him as a free agent in the summer.
But the leadership is where he has made the greatest difference for the surging Knicks. And it’s that trait that could be taken into consideration when voters weigh in on postseason honors — particularly All-NBA team spots.
Returning to the lineup Thursday night against the Sacramento Kings after a two-game absence with a sore left foot, Brunson faced a player also fighting through injuries and leading his team to unexpected heights in De’Aaron Fox. Both have risen to star status, with Brunson lifting the Knicks to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and Fox leading Sacramento to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference entering the night. Fox was averaging 25.5 points and 6.3 assists.
Both of the guards have a solid case in a crowded field of possible all-NBA players. Some of the other players expected to be sure bets now have some questions, particularly Ja Morant, who was suspended after apparently brandishing a gun on an Instagram Live video and has no return date set.
With the Grizzlies announcing that he will miss at least the next four games, that leaves 67 games as the highest possible number of games he can play.
Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell and Damian Lillard certainly will grab all-NBA spots. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is likely to earn a spot. So if Morant does make it, that leaves a fight among Brunson, Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, James Harden and, depending on what position he draws votes, Jaylen Brown for a spot on one of the three teams.
On his SiriusXM show Tuesday, legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “You know what [Brunson has] done for the Knicks, though, it’s made like [Julius] Randle, RJ Barrett, where they don’t have to be point guards. And so when they have the ball, there are less dribbles, the offense has already been moving because of Brunson and it’s worked out well.”
Brunson, who was left off the All-Star team last month, did receive an honor last week when he was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month. The Knicks were 36-25 in games in which Brunson played entering Thursday and 3-3 without him. He ranks fourth among guards in Win Shares, trailing only Doncic, Gilgeous-Alexander and Lillard.
“The most important thing I think is the impact on winning,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said when Brunson got the award. “We just love how selfless he is. It’s all about the team. That’s all he cares about. I think it resonates with his teammates and it makes your team function well, so we’re excited about that.
“Any time a player gets recognized like that, it’s positive and it’s usually a byproduct of the winning. The more you win, the more people will get recognized.”