Stop me if you’ve heard this before but the Knicks blew another huge lead on Wednesday night. However, this time, they were fortunate enough to be bailed on by Jalen Brunson, who responded with big plays down the stretch to help the Knicks escape with a 119-113 win over the Pacers.
With 7:50 left in the third quarter, the Knicks were up by 25 points. With 9:13 to go in the fourth that lead had shrunk to two points, and the teams were in a battle down the stretch.
It seems to be a nightly occurrence with the Knicks. They play great basketball in the first half and go up big, only to see their lead collapse in the second half. We’ve covered it time and time again on this site, highlighting how Tom Thibodeau fails to use his bench and gasses the starters out by the fourth quarter, and also how his overly aggressive defensive principles come back to haunt the team late in games when they’re not as precise.
In some respects, it was more of the same on Wednesday.
The New York bench played just 50 total minutes and 26 of them were played by Immanuel Quickley. Thibodeau played four of his starters for 38 minutes or more, including RJ Barrett, who hadn’t played in two weeks and then was tasked with playing 41 minutes against the Pacers.
While Barrett was solid on the day, scoring 27 points with eight rebounds and four assists and hitting two clutch free throws with 18 seconds left to help seal the win, he was also 0-2 from the field in the last six minutes of the game, committed a turnover, and was often a step slow on the defensive end. All of which is to be expected when asked to carry so much of the load after that long of a layoff.
Meanwhile, Obi Toppin, who was in his second game back after missing a month with a leg injury, played just nine minutes and has played 17 total minutes in those two games. Miles McBride and Isaiah Hartenstein were also held to single-digit minutes as New York played essentially six players all game.
Luckily for them, one of those six players was Jalen Bruson, who has emerged as one of the better late-game performers in the league.
On Wednesday, Brunson finished with 34 points on 11-of-20 from the field and 3-of-4 from deep with four assists and three rebounds. He also turned the ball over just once and stepped up for the Knicks multiple times when their backs were against the ropes.
When Indiana cut the lead to three with nine minutes left, Brunson found Quickley for an open three to give New York some breathing room. When the lead was cut back down to two points with three minutes left, Brunson knifed through the Pacers’ defense for a driving layup, and then on the very next possession he buried a three to put his team up 110-103 with just two minutes to play.
Those kinds of late-game heroics have been par for the course this season for New York’s point guard.
According to NBA.com’s Clutch Stats, which is defined as “when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime,” Brunson is 6th in the lead with 4.8 clutch points per game. He’s also shooting 55.6% from beyond the arc in clutch situations and averaged the 4th-most clutch field goals made per game in the NBA.
“I feel like I strive to be the best player every time I step on the court,” Brunson said after Wednesday’s win “first and foremost.”
For much of the season, he has been the best player on the court for New York, but that has especially been the case since the calendar flipped to 2023. In the six games in which the Knicks have gone 5-1, Brunson leads the team with 33.2 points per game to go along with 5.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting 52.6% from the field and 50% from beyond the arc and is putting up numbers that New York hasn’t seen from a guard in over almost two decades.
Jalen Brunson is averaging 21.9 PPG this season.
The last Knicks' guard to average 22+ PPG in a season was Allan Houston (22.5) in 2002-03. Before that? Clyde Frazier (23.2) in 1971-72.
It's been 20 years. Needless to say the Knicks don't usually have guards scoring like this.
— Max Wildstein (@MaxWildstein) January 12, 2023
As a result of the win, New York has now moved into 6th in the Eastern Conference and has a winnable game with Washington on tap for Friday night. So while there are still issues to fix and collapses to avoid, the Knicks may have finally found the player that can rescue them from heartbreak.