Knicks' Jalen Brunson shoots during the 3-point contest at the...

Knicks' Jalen Brunson shoots during the 3-point contest at the NBA basketball All-Star weekend, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, in Indianapolis. Credit: AP/Darron Cummings


Now it’s back to work.

For one nice long weekend, Jalen Brunson had a well-earned respite from carrying the weight and hopes of success-starved Knicks fans on his shoulders.

He was able to spend time with his family. He was able to get to know other elite players in the league instead of studying them on film and scheming about new ways to compete against them. And he was able to give his body a bit of rest while not worrying a second about playing any kind of defense.

In his first All-Star Game appearance, Brunson scored 12 points, including nine in the fourth quarter, in the East’s record-setting 211-186 victory over the West on Sunday night.

The contest was the highest- scoring in the game’s 73-year history. The East became the first team ever to score more than 200 points, breaking the 2016 record of 196 points scored by the West. The point total of 397 smashed the record of 374 set in 2017. And the East tied a record for any half by scoring 104 by intermission.

Brunson said the East held a quick meeting at halftime and set the goal of becoming the first team to score more than 200.

Did he feel he was part of history? “In some way, shape, form, I do,” he said. “Whenever you can be part of something like that, why not? . . . It’s cool. This whole experience was awesome.”

In so many ways, Brunson’s first All-Star appearance was the perfect reward for his incredible performance in the first two-thirds of the season. But now he knows it’s time to turn the page and to finish what the Knicks started.

Yes, the expectations are huge, and that’s just fine with Brunson.

“I think we can be really good,” he said in an ESPN interview earlier in the weekend. “I think we have the potential to do a lot of really good things. I know a lot of Knicks fans want to put us right in the Eastern Conference finals. We were one step short last year.

“I think for us, we just have to continue to get better every single day. We can’t look forward to the playoffs. We have to focus on every single day, just chipping away and getting better and better.”

At the All-Star break, Brunson is eighth in the NBA in scoring with a career-high average of 27.6 points. He has scored at least 40 points five times and at least 30 points 22 times in the 52 games in which he has played. Most important, he has the Knicks (33-22) in fourth place in the Eastern Conference despite playing without three starters, including fellow All-Star Julius Randle.

The question is just how much longer he can do this. How much longer he can continue to hold the Knicks together as they wait for Randle’s shoulder to heal, OG Anunoby to recover from right elbow surgery and Mitchell Robinson to return from what once was thought to be a season-ending ankle injury.

The Knicks are in a weird and tough place. One reason they have played so well is that they have assembled a group of players who seem willing to run through a wall for coach Tom Thibodeau, with Brunson leading the charge. The Knicks’ pedal-to-the-metal attitude — the fact that they treat almost every game as if it were some do-or-die play-in — has been the major reason they have won the hearts of their fans.

Still, it’s hard for Knicks fans not to cringe every time Brunson crashes to the court and is slow to get up. It’s also hard not to imagine how exhausted he might be come playoff time.

The Knicks currently have two players who rank in the top 16 in the league in minutes per game. Brunson is ranked ninth with his average of 35.9 and Randle is 16th at 35.4.

Thibodeau has such a reputation as a taskmaster that it became a topic of discussion during Brunson’s media availability on Saturday when a reporter asked if the coach is “as terrifying as he seems.”

Responded Brunson with a laugh: “He has his moments. He will yell and scream and all that, but he loves to talk. He’s a great dude. I love him.”

One of the things Brunson loves about Thibodeau is that he doesn’t ask his players to work any harder than he does.

“He prepares us,” Brunson said on Saturday. “He’s going to make sure we are ready to go every night. He wants to win. He’s a competitor. He’s in the gym if I go back and shoot at night. He’s there. Like, it’s just what he does, and I respect that. If you have a dude like that who wants to win that much, I mean, anyone should want to play for him.”

What matters most right now heading into the last couple of months of the regular season is that Thibodeau has an All-Star point guard who does.

And now it’s back to work.

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