A lot of people owe Jalen Brunson an apology. When the Knicks made him the focal point of their offense, there were many who felt he would be miscast as a focal point of an offense and was better suited in a supporting role.
So far, the bright lights of leadership in New York City have not been too bright for the 25-year-old. Brunson added another impressive effort to his early season resume on Wednesday leading the Knicks to a 134-131 overtime win over the Hornets by posting 27 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists on 75% shooting from the field.
“That’s who he is,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau. “Whatever the game needs, that’s what he does.”
The game needed Brunson to help close it at the end too.
He hit a big three with 52 seconds left to tie the game at 120 and then two free throws to put the Knicks up 122-120. With the game tied at 122 in the waning seconds of regulation, New York responded on the defensive end, for perhaps the first time all game, and force a miss on a Gordon Hayward floater to send the game to overtime.
When it mattered most, Brunson stepped up again. He had six points, one assist, and one rebound in the extra five-minute overtime period as the Knicks held on for the win to improve to 3-1 on the young season.
Even with Jalen Brunson playing the way he was, the Knicks had sequences where Randle was bullying defenders inside, others where Obi Toppin was lighting it up from beyond the arc, and even a stretch early in the third quarter where Evan Fournier was feeling both his floater and three-point shot.
It’s that type of versatility and balanced attack that has become less common in the era of Super Teams but one that makes this Knicks unit a bit of an offensive force early in the season. They had seven players in double figures tonight because, when they play at the pace they do, it forces defenses to guard everybody on the court on every possession, which often leads to at least one good look on each possession.
At least when New York is in a flow and not playing the ball-dominant isolation offense that sometimes works its way into a few possessions and was part of the reason the Knicks blew a double-digit lead and even found themselves down five points late in the fourth quarter.
“You gotta win ugly,” Brunson said after the game. “When you play perfect, you’re supposed to win those games, but when we’re not playing our best and we give up leads and respond, those are signs of good teams. If we can do that consistently, I think we’re going to put ourselves in position to be the best team we can be.”
That ability to battle through adversity was personified by RJ Barrett on Wednesday night. Despite scoring 22 points and adding eight rebounds, RJ Barrett continues to look a bit out of sorts at the beginning of the season. He was just 9-of-21 from the field and 0-for-5 from three on the game. There were times when he looked gun-shy on his three-point shot and even lost track of where he was and stepped on the sideline on one possession.
However, the young forward, who New York locked up with a contract extension in the offseason, continued to play hard on the defensive end and attack the basket with conviction, even if the shots weren’t falling. He also calmly stepped to the free throw line and hit two big free throws to give the Knicks a 134-131 lead in overtime.
Given how well he and Brunson played together in the preseason, it seems likely Barrett will get going at some point. Yet, the beauty of the Knicks’ offense so far this year is how it can run through different people, so Barrett doesn’t need to force opportunities in order for the team to win.
As a team, New York shot 53.6% from the field but just 36.7% from beyond the arc on 11-of-30 shooting. They also had 16 turnovers to just five steals in what was oftentimes a sloppy game with inconsistent defense.
Despite coming away with the win, New York will have a lot to improve upon when it comes to their defensive performance. Right out of the gates, in the first quarter, they allowed Charlotte to shoot 50% from the field and 50% from beyond the arc (4-of-8) for 30 points. For the first half, those numbers were 53.5% from the field on 23-of-43 and 46.7% from deep on 7-of-15.
New York’s three-point defense was exposed on Wednesday, and they were incredibly lucky that P.J. Washington’s jumpshot with 5.8 seconds left in overtime was ruled a two when maybe the very tip of the toenail on his big toe caught the line. It would have been another instance where a Charlotte player was left wide open for three and would have forced double overtime.
The Knicks came into the game allowing just the second-lowest three-point shooting percentage in the league at 27.3%, but opponents were shooting the second-most threes against them (40.3 a game). That is, in part, because of the presence of Mitchell Robinson and Isaish Hartenstein below, but also because of New York’s pace of play and their ability to get overly aggressive on the wings.
This version of the Knicks loves to put pressure on the ball and get their hands in passing lanes, but opponents can use that aggression against them. The Hornets in particular were screening and causing the Knicks to switch, which led to over-rotation on the defensive end and lots of open threes that Knicks defenders were slow to challenge.
Evan Fournier in particular was exposed on the defensive end early on against Kelly Oubre Jr, but it didn’t get much better when the second unit came in during the second quarter. Considering the Hornets were playing without LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier, their ability to consistently score against the Knicks is a bit of a concern going forward if the team can’t make the necessary adjustments.
But just four games into this season, the Knicks have shown they can win ugly and they can keep their composure. There appears to be a lot of belief in the locker room, as well as in the Garden, which was rocking late in this game.
“Basketball is important to this city, and the Knicks are important to this city,” said Thibodeau after the game. Perhaps in 2022-23, that relationship between team and city will be as fulfilling as fans are dreaming of just a week and a half into the new season.
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