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Jalen Brunson’s Knicks weren’t charmed from the start, but they keep finding answers in the playoffs

PHILADELPHIA — It is easy to forget with New York City in the grips of Knicks hysteria and “LET’S GO KNICKS” chants traveling with the team to Wells Fargo Center, but the team that disposed of the Philadelphia 76ers in six games wasn’t charmed from the start. On Dec. 5, the night that New York was eliminated from the first annual In-Season Tournament with a 24-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Kenny Smith said on TNT that the Knicks would “stay in the middle” because they would not have the best player in a matchup against any Eastern Conference playoff team.

Also that night: Quentin Grimes aired his grievances about his role in the Knicks’ offense, just like Josh Hart had the week prior. The headline in the New York Post the following day read, “Knicks’ poor roster construction has led to mounting frustration.”

New York was 12-9 after a loss in Boston on Dec. 8, the game in which Mitchell Robinson went down with an ankle injury that would require surgery. It was 16-12 on Christmas Day when Stephen A. Smith lamented that he had to watch “some dude named Hartenstein” start for his favorite team. The Knicks had the worst defense in the NBA in December and ended the calendar year with a 17-15 record, eighth in the East.

The Knicks of December, however, hardly resemble the Knicks that advanced to the second round on Thursday. The front office reshaped the roster by trading for OG Anunoby on New Year’s Eve Eve, and, despite three-time All-Star Julius Randle suffering what turned out to be a season-ending shoulder injury in late January, New York has evolved into a tough, balanced, adaptable, more-than-the-sum-of-its parts team, led by three former college teammates: Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Hart. “If you don’t like the way those three guys play, then you don’t like basketball, man,” Sixers coach Nick Nurse said during the series. “They play great, they play hard, they play smart. And they do look like they’ve played together a bit, yeah.” If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance you know a few longtime Knicks haters who will begrudgingly admit they like this iteration.

“I think it’s not the best individual players that win, always,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said earlier this week. “It’s the best team that wins. And that’s what we have to be. When we lost guys along the way, we knew we had to be a great team to be able to overcome that.”

The Anunoby trade didn’t just fix the defense overnight — New York allowed just 100.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the regular season — it transformed the offense, too. What they lost in shot creation by sending Immanuel Quickley (who attended Game 6 and caught up with former teammates outside the locker room) and RJ Barrett to Toronto, they gained in offensive cohesion. The Knicks’ initial post-trade starting five, including Randle, scored 126.6 points per 100 possessions in 180 minutes. And while they lost even more shot creation when Randle got hurt, there was a silver lining: Several players had to step up. Brunson made the leap from star to superstar, DiVincenzo turned himself into a high-volume movement shooter, Isaiah Hartenstein reached back into his playmaking bag, Hart played a zillion hair-on-fire minutes and Miles “Deuce” McBride made a name for himself. 

Even though Anunoby wound up having to miss 27 games with an elbow injury (suffered the same night as Randle’s dislocated shoulder) and the deadline-day deal that brought Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks to New York (and Grimes to Detroit) wasn’t particularly consequential, Thibodeau’s beloved band of bullies finished with 52 wins and the second-best record in the conference.

New York’s six games against the Sixers played out like a compressed version of the regular season. Robinson’s defense against Joel Embiid was essential in Game 1, but he left Game 3 in a walking boot and missed Game 4. Bogdanovic made big 3s in the first two games at MSG, then bam: a season-ending foot injury in Philly. McBride caught fire in the opener, DiVincenzo played hero in Game 2 and Philly fans will have nightmares about Hart’s 3-pointers, Anunoby’s midrange jumpers, Hartenstein’s floaters and everybody’s offensive rebounds for some time.

And then there is Brunson.

After scoring a combined 46 points on 57 shots in the first two games, limited by the Sixers’ length and help defense, Brunson erupted for 39, 47, 40 and 41 in the next four games (on 59.2% true shooting). In Game 4 he broke Bernard King’s franchise record for points scored in a playoff game, which had stood for 40 years, and in frenetic final minute of the clincher he rattled in a floater through contact and assisted on Hart’s dagger 3 on consecutive possessions. 

Just like in the regular season, when, post-Randle injury, he had to adjust to teams blitzing his pick-and-rolls, denying him the ball and outright daring any of his teammates to beat them, Brunson went into problem-solving mode. He worked his two-man game with Hartenstein patiently, and took advantage when he got the slivers of space that he needed. When he got a matchup he liked (i.e. anyone other than Nicolas Batum or Kelly Oubre Jr.), he often opted to attack without a screen. Once he knocked down a few jumpers in space, the contested ones started falling too. 

Had Brunson not broken out the way he did, it would have been understandable. For the 27-year-old guard, drafted No. 33 in 2018, this was his first playoff series since becoming the Knicks’ clear-cut No. 1 option. The lineups he’s leading do not afford him pristine spacing, and Nurse is renowned for making opposing stars uncomfortable. That he managed to find his rhythm in this context reinforces what his otherworldly final month of the season — in which he led the league in both scoring (35.1 points per game) and usage rate (36.7%) with incredible efficiency (59.8%) — already strongly suggested: Brunson is scheme-proof. The Sixers toggled between a few primary defenders throughout the series, varied the degree to which they packed the paint and mixed things up with some zone. He figured out answers for all of it.

Even when his shots weren’t falling early in the series, Brunson stayed aggressive and was “really good” at generating good looks for others, Hartenstein said after Game 6. “And then after that, he was just Jalen.”

It is appropriate that, before Hart broke Philadelphia’s heart and waved goodbye to the crowd on Thursday, New York blew a 22-point lead and fell down by double digits. 

“They fought back, which, there’s going to be runs,” Thibodeau said. “Then we responded again. And then the fourth quarter was one big play after the next, and a lot of the time it was the hustle plays. And that’s the thing I love about our team. It’s a team, and they’re fighters. They don’t stay down.”

Hartenstein credited the Sixers for doing “a great job of adjusting to what we were doing” throughout the six-game series. He said the “biggest thing” for the Knicks was simply continuing to adjust in their own right, continuing to fight back, regardless of what crazy stuff had just happened.

“I think that’s what we’ve been doing all season long,” Hartenstein said. “Anything that comes in front of us, we’re ready for the next thing.”

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