Knicks guard Quentin Grimes (6) and teammate Jalen Brunson (11) react...

Knicks guard Quentin Grimes (6) and teammate Jalen Brunson (11) react after a Brunson basket in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Madison Square Garden on May 10, 2023. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Jalen Brunson wasn’t going to let this one out of his grasp.

He had dragged this Knicks team too far. He had worked too hard to make them respectable again. Brunson simply wasn’t going to let what had been a feel-good story for most of the season end with a hollow thud in front of the fans at Madison Square Garden who had cheered them all season long.

So, the player who spent his preschool years hanging out with his father, Patrick Ewing and John Starks in the Knicks locker room, summoned his inner-Nineties Knick and came up with the type of refuse-to-lose performance against the Miami Heat on Wednesday night that will be talked about for years.

Brunson scored 38 points, grabbed nine rebounds, dished out seven assists and played all 48 minutes as the Knicks defeated the Heat, 112-103, in a win-or-go-home Game 4 at Madison Square Garden.

“I just tried to do everything I could to get a win,” Brunson said after the game. “I did that and now it’s Game 6.”

Game 6 is Friday in Miami. If the Knicks can win that, Game 7 will be at Madison Square Garden Monday. Only 12 teams have ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series.

More than anyone on the court, Brunson knew about the pressure of playing in an elimination game. On the way to winning two national titles at Villanova, he went 13-1 in the win-or-go-home NCAA Tournament. His ease at being in this kind of situation was evident.

Brunson’s fingerprints were all over this win. After the Knicks got off to a slow start and trailed by 10, he brought them back by scoring 14 points with four assists in the second quarter.

When it looked it looked like Miami might climb back from a 19-point lead, he made big shots to make sure it wasn’t going to happen.

“What can you say about the guy?” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s incredible, an all-around player, great leader, great toughness, mental toughness, physical toughness, ability to think on his feet, ability to lead, ability to connect with people and get the best out of people. That’s what makes him special, play after play.”

No matter when the Knicks season ends – Friday, Monday or in some later round – there is no doubt that the Knicks have found a floor leader, the type of guy who with a little more help can lead them deep into the playoffs.

As hard as it was for Knicks to watch their team fall behind Miami, 3-1, in this series, it was much harder to watch their team before Brunson signed on the dotted line last July.

Brunson – with both his play and his leadership – has changed the culture of a franchise that has been mired in mediocrity or worse for a good part of the last 20 years. Julius Randle may be the best player on this team, but Brunson is the most important.

Not only has he had the best year of his career statistically, he has made everyone around him look better. He helped Randle raise his level of play back to an All-Star level, he pushed the Knicks into a fifth-place finish that no one could have predicted at the start of the season and he outplayed Donovan Mitchell in the first round to lead the Knicks to a 4-1 win over Cleveland.

Against the Heat, however, Brunson had not been 100%. H had some great moments – like when he scored 23 second-half points to push the Knicks to a Game 2 win – but until Wednesday night it seemed like the ankle he injured at the end of the season was impacting his game.

As karma would have it, Game 5 was played on the 50th anniversary of the Knicks’ last championship. On May 10, 1973, the Knicks defeated the Lakers in Game 5 of the Finals to win the title. Knicks fans have been starved for success for a long time, and that’s a lot for any player to take on his shoulders. So many players failed under the heft of the hype that seems to follow every free agent who signs here.

On Wednesday night, the Knicks had a player who didn’t.













 

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