New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson looks on against the...

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson looks on against the Chicago Bulls in the second half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, April 14, 2024. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

GREENBURGH

This is it.

This is the moment Jalen Brunson has been playing for all season, the moment when he can rewrite the narrative and put the ending to last year’s playoffs behind him.

A little more than 24 hours before the Knicks host the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, Brunson conceded Friday that he has been haunted by his late turnover in Game 6 of the Knicks’ second-round playoff series against the Heat last season.

This, more than anything, speaks volumes about Brunson’s makeup. Although most fans remember last year’s playoffs as the stretch when Brunson became truly a big-time player, it’s what went wrong rather than right that rattled around Brunson’s head all last summer.

Just how often does Brunson think of the bad pass he made out of a double-team in Miami with 16 seconds left and the Knicks down by two points?

“A lot more than you would think,” Brunson said. “We were in a position where we could have forced a Game 7. I made a terrible decision and had to live with that for the whole summer.”

The Brunson who led the Knicks to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference despite having to play without three starters for much of the season has come a long way from the Brunson who turned that ball over.

Brunson has dealt with doubters his entire basketball career. He’s been told he’s too short. He’s been told he’s too slow.

This season, however, most of the detractors have fallen to the wayside. It’s impossible not to be impressed with the way he not only has carried his team to new heights but established himself as a player deserving of MVP consideration.

Brunson, who averaged 28.7 points and 6.7 assists this season, finished as the league’s fourth-leading scorer.

Given the attention he now attracts, he’s had to become a pro at passing out of double- teams. He’s learned to dump the ball quickly and exhaust defenders as they chase him around. He’s become an accurate three-point shooter. He’s learned not to force things, to trust his teammates and to find them in the right spot.

Here’s the really scary thing about Brunson in the playoffs: He always gets better.

In 2021-22, Brunson averaged 21.6 points for Dallas in his first postseason as a starter, up from his season average of 16.3. Last season, his 27.8 points in the postseason were almost four more than the 24.0 he scored in the regular season.

Brunson averaged 28.7 points this season and headed into the playoffs on a steep on-ramp. In his final seven games of the season, with the Knicks fighting for playoff positioning, Brunson averaged 38.1 points.

“I think he’s been in a lot of big moments, and I think he’s shown how well he handles those moments,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He has the unique ability to go up a level. So that’s what makes him who he is. I think each experience teaches him something and I think he’s continued to grow.”

The 76ers know guarding Brunson will be difficult.

“He’s a great player,” coach Nick Nurse said after practice Friday. “He’s a great player and we’re going to try to make them work. A lot of guys will probably spend time on him and guarding him .  .  . He’s a superstar in this league and we’ve got guys ready to guard him.”

The goal throughout this season, of course, was to get back to the playoffs and rewrite the playoff script. It’s become something Josh Hart, Brunson’s teammate with the Knicks and Villanova, likes to poke him about.

“The only time I talked about it was just to let him know that I was open at the top of the key,” Hart said with a smile. “Wide open. We’ve made jokes about it .  .  . So sometimes we talk about it, but that’s something I know he thinks about.

“That’s what we’ve got to fuel us now in terms of what can we do better against Philly to move on to the second round.”

A chance to move on, both in the playoffs and from the ghosts of last year. It’s the moment Brunson has been waiting for.

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