Knicks assistant coach Rick Brunson talks with his son Jalen...

Knicks assistant coach Rick Brunson talks with his son Jalen Brunson in the third quarter during Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Pacers on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. Credit: Newsday

It shouldn’t have ended this way.

After everything that Jalen Brunson did for the Knicks this season, it shouldn’t have ended with him sitting in a nearly empty trainer’s room, nursing a broken hand and watching on television as his teammates couldn’t pull off a miracle comeback and save the season.

It shouldn’t have ended with the Indiana Pacers clinching a trip to the Eastern Conference finals on Brunson’s home floor by annihilating the Knicks, 130-109, in the first NBA Game 7 at Madison Square Garden in 29 years.

It shouldn’t have, but it did.

And it’s an image that Brunson is going to carry with him this entire offseason, just as he was motivated this season by the turnover he committed in the final seconds of the Knicks’ season-ending loss in Miami a year ago.

“It sucked. It sucked,” he said of watching his season end this way.

It was especially difficult as Brunson held the Knicks together this season as starter after starter was injured. In the process, he took a giant step forward as a player and a leader.

“His playoff run last year was remarkable, and to take the steps this year that he’s taken says a lot about who he is,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s never satisfied. He always wants to do better, and that’s what I love about him.”

Brunson played in his first All-Star Game. He finished fifth in the MVP voting. And he scored at least 40 points five times in the playoffs.

Brunson, however, couldn’t come up big when his team needed him most. The Pacers made him the focal point of their defense and wore him down in Games 6 and 7.

“I would say there’s pros and cons in how I played,” he said. “The pros are I played well individually at some points and time during the playoffs. The cons are I didn’t play well enough to help my team move forward. You can say I got hurt in Game 7. I wasn’t playing well in Game 7. We had a 2-0 and a 3-2 lead. So it’s hard to look at things individually when you don’t help your team.”

Brunson got hurt with 4:06 left in the third quarter and the Knicks down by 14. He went to the bench after hitting his hand on Tyrese Haliburton’s thigh as he attempted a steal. He went to the locker room for a moment, returned and then headed back again, bringing the Knicks’ trainers and his father, assistant coach Rick Brunson, with him.

Brunson never returned, finishing with a playoff-low 17 points and shooting 6-for-17 overall and 1-for-3 from behind the arc.

Brunson was the only Knicks starter in Sunday’s game who also started the first game of the season. Over the course of the regular season and playoffs, the Knicks lost starters Julius Randle, OG Anunoby and Mitchell Robinson and top reserve Bojan Bogdanovic.

Anunoby, who suffered a hamstring injury earlier in the Indiana series, returned for Sunday’s game but had to leave in the first quarter.

With their next-man-up attitude, this Knicks team was one of the most likable and watchable in decades. Brunson’s attitude is a big reason why. He proved that a small player can be a big-time leader, and he did it by showing the kind of toughness and grit that inspired his teammates.

“I would say that I love how we fought night in and night out,’’ Brunson said. “I love this group of guys and their mindset as a group was strong. Some nights when we may not have had what people thought was a team capable of winning, our mindset pushed us over that hump. And so, definitely proud of what we were able to do this year and how we fought night in and night out. Obviously, the outcome is not what we wanted. But the way we fought is just awesome.”

Brunson made it quite clear what his mentality is in his postgame news conference when asked what he was going to take away from his performance this season.

“There’s obviously gonna be a lot of things, X’s-and-O’s-wise, physically and other stuff I could do to be better,’’ he said. “I think the most important thing that I need to do is to continue to just strive for perfection .  .  . My mind says I just need to be better every single day. I don’t care what I’ve done as a player; it means nothing. I’m going to go into this summer training to be better.”

That’s the kind of mentality that the Knicks are planning to build around for years to come, and one of their first orders of business will be to ink Brunson to an extension.

Said Thibodeau: “I love his mentality and I think it permeates the team.”


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