Knicks guard Jalen Brunson drives past Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope...

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson drives past Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the first half of an NBA game at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

There has been plenty of spirited debate about who will win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award this season, and the front-runner — two-time defending winner Nikola Jokic — made his case before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

But as “MVP’’ chants broke out in the arena in the final minutes, it wasn’t for Jokic. Instead, it was a loud appreciation of a player who might not be in the mix for votes but has proved to be the most valuable piece on the Knicks — Jalen Brunson.

Brunson returned after missing the previous three games with a bone bruise in his left foot and provided a calming presence down the stretch of a roller-coaster contest as the Knicks beat the Denver Nuggets, 116-110.

“It’s special,” Brunson said of the chants. “I’m just happy we won and it’s a great fan base to play in front of and I appreciate it, but got a long way to go before that.”

Brunson sank two free throws with 43 seconds left and capped a fast break by throwing a lob to Mitchell Robinson for a dunk with 24 seconds remaining to provide an exclamation point on a hard-fought victory.

Brunson scored 24 points (16 in the first quarter), RJ Barrett 21 and Julius Randle 20 for the Knicks (42-30), who held the Nuggets to 19 points in the fourth quarter and earned their third straight win. Josh Hart added 13 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals off the bench, and the Knicks moved to 12-3 since acquiring him.

“Honestly, at first I was kind of mad,” Hart said of the MVP chants. “I’m like, ‘Bro, minute left in the game, he’s shooting free throws, they’re yelling.’ I wouldn’t mind them being a little quiet when he’s at least going to shoot, you know what I mean? Maybe during his dribbles, chant it or something.

“It’s really dope for me to see, obviously. Knowing him since 2014, watching his progression, watching him grow just as a friend, it’s amazing because I’ve seen the work behind the scenes. And he knows this and I have the most respect for him as almost any NBA guy or basketball player in general because he continues to grind, continues to work.

“I think the biggest thing that sums that up is he’s about to go into free agency, fortunate enough to be signing the biggest contract of his career that’s going to set his family up for a long time. And we’re both at Villanova and he’s in there at 6 or 7 a.m. He beat me there. And this is someone who like I said is about to sign an unbelievable contract, still ready to work, still wanting to work, still hungry to work. For me, man, it’s just amazing to see. I’ve seen the work. And that’s what he does.”

Jamal Murray scored 25 points and Jokic had 24 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists for Denver (47-24).

After blowing a 13-point second-quarter lead and falling behind by 13 with 6:44 left in the third quarter, having Tom Thibodeau hit with a technical foul and everything seemingly going Denver’s way, the Knicks turned it back on. They outscored the Nuggets 20-7 to tie it at 91 entering the fourth quarter.

Robinson came back on the floor with 4:25 to play and had to try to keep Jokic from taking over. With the score tied at 108, Robinson stole the ball from Jokic on the perimeter, leading to a basket by Brunson and a 110-108 lead with 2:55 left. Jokic tied the score with a short floater over Robinson, but Randle put the Knicks up for good with a turnaround baseline jumper.

It was fitting that Robinson got the final bucket after a week that had him in the headlines for a social media post in which he griped about his role.

“Yeah, that was pretty cool,” Brunson said. “Pretty nice.”

Brunson came out on fire, scoring 16 points in the first 7:55 — at which point he’d matched the Nuggets’ total and given the Knicks a 26-16 lead. He was hitting from all angles, going 2-for-4 from beyond the arc and 4-for-4 in the paint. They included consecutive layups with a foul, one down the left side of the lane and then another on the right side, as he flipped the ball up with his right hand off the backboard.

The Knicks stretched the lead to 45-32 early in the second quarter, but the Nuggets outscored them 52-26 to take an 84-71 lead.

The Knicks moved within 2 1⁄2 games of the fourth-place Cavaliers. They are two games ahead of the sixth-place Nets and four games ahead of the seventh-place Heat.

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