Mike Vaccaro

Mike Vaccaro


Jalen Brunson would be historic if he could lead Knicks to Game 7 win

It’s not a fair thing to ask under any circumstances. For one thing, it’s pretty obvious that there’s still something wrong with Jalen Brunson’s foot. For another, there isn’t a soul alive who’ll be under the pinwheel roof at Madison Square Garden who’ll be unaware of the Indiana Pacers’ game plan for stealing Game 7 Sunday, which goes something like this:

1. Blitz Brunson.

2. Swarm Brunson.

3. Harass Brunson.

4. Pick Brunson up 94 feet.

5. Double-team Brunson.

5A. Triple-team Brunson.

6. Hit Brunson as often as you can get away with it.

7. Knock Brunson down as often as you can get away with it.


It's not fair, but the banged-up Knicks need Jalen Brunson to carry them to Game 7 win, The Post's Mike Vaccaro writes.
It’s not fair, but the banged-up Knicks need Jalen Brunson to carry them to Game 7 win, The Post’s Mike Vaccaro writes. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Such would be the case anyway, because this is who Brunson is now, as we reach the second half of May. He is the decider. He is the decoder. Basketball is a wonderful game because it can be, at the same time, both remarkably complex and painfully simple. And here’s the simple part:

It is Brunson, more than any other player on either side, who can determine the outcome of Game 7. We have seen, plenty, what he has in him when the Knicks need it most. That’s the version we see more often. If that’s the version who takes the court at the Garden just past 3:30, there’s an awfully good chance the Knicks will be playing a basketball game in Boston on Tuesday night, despite it all.

But we have also seen, as this series has progressed, that through sheer repetition and familiarity, the Pacers have occasionally unlocked the secret of how to slow Brunson: by focusing all of their energies — and all of their basketball players — on Brunson. By bleeding half the shot clock dry by the time the Knicks offense can set up. By making Brunson work so hard to create difficult shots that he sometimes misses routine ones.

And above all else: force someone else to beat us.

And the hard truth is this: As this series has ground along, there are fewer and fewer options for the Knicks to identify as that someone else. OG Anunoby staggered off the court in Game 2 with a hamstring strain. Josh Hart spent most of Game 6 looking just about as physically uncomfortable as a basketball player can look. Deuce McBride and Donte DiVincenzo have been lights out at points in this series; they’ve also scuffled some.

Knicks star guard Jalen Brunson, driving to the basket in Game 6, will be double and triple teamed by the Pacers at various moments of Game 7.
Knicks star guard Jalen Brunson, driving to the basket in Game 6, will be double and triple teamed by the Pacers at various moments of Game 7. AP

The Knicks are not a one-man team.

But Sunday afternoon, they will be a one-man band, with Brunson needing to play an awful lot of instruments: scoring, passing, controlling tempo, taking his inevitable charge or two. And, most of all, serving as the Knicks’ spirit animal, their soul, their inspiration. That’s a lot to ask of one player, especially in an elimination game. It’s not going to be easy.

But, as Jimmy Dugan might say if Tom Thibodeau asked him to join his coaching staff for the day Sunday afternoon: “If it was easy, then everyone would hear ‘M! V! P!’ chants at the foul line.”

“They adjust,” Brunson said late Friday night after the Pacers had sent this series back to New York with a 116-103 win in Game 6. “They try to make things difficult. And I have to adjust as well. Show me different looks and I have to do a better job of reading it. I just can’t be what I was for the first 40 minutes of the game.”

Again, a hard truth: If Brunson is what he was for the first 40 minutes of that game, then it’s the Pacers — who undoubtedly packed for a longer trip than just a day and half — who will be rolling the dice against the Celtics in the East Finals. There’s no escaping that. And, with the state of the Knicks’ health right now, just being average — or slightly above — might bring the same result.

Hart will try to play through the abdominal strain that had him doubled over most of Friday. Anunoby was upgraded to “questionable” for Game 7. If they can go, Brunson will have some company. If not …

The best who have ever played for the Knicks have always found a way to save the very best of themselves for the most necessary moments. In 1970, with the Knicks teetering in the first round of the playoffs against Baltimore, Willis Reed posted a 36-point, 36-rebound masterpiece in pivotal Game 5 that might be remembered as the best game a Knick ever played — if not for the 36-point, 19-assist, seven-rebound tour de force Clyde Frazier delivered against the Lakers a few weeks later in Game 7 of the Finals.

In 1984, on the loudest night at the Garden between the early ’70s and the mid-’90s, Bernard King dropped 44 on the Celtics, refusing to let the Knicks lose, insisting the Celtics beat them in Game 7 before marching on to the title. And in ’94, in his finest of many fine hours as a Knick, Patrick Ewing’s follow-jam sealed a win for the Knicks in Game 7 of the East Finals, capping a brilliant 24-point, 22-rebound game against the Pacers.

Knicks fans remember those numbers like they remember the Pledge of Allegiance. That’s what’s on the table for Brunson on Sunday. That’s the company he can keep. It won’t be easy. Its doubtful he’d want it any other way.

Captain Clutch

Jalen Brunson and the Knicks face their first elimination game of this year’s playoffs when they host the Pacers for Game 7 of this Eastern Conference semifinals series at the Garden on Sunday. The Post takes a look at how Brunson has performed in his career in each of his elimination games.

May 12, 2023

Brunson scores nearly half of the Knicks’ points in a season-ending 96-92 loss to the Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. He pours in 41 points on 14-of-22 shooting, but his turnover with 16.2 seconds left and the Knicks trailing by two ends a memorable first season in the orange and blue. In typical Brunson fashion, he faults himself for the loss despite his extraordinary individual effort.

May 10, 2023

Brunson keeps the Knicks’ season alive, scoring 38 points to go along with nine rebounds and seven assists in a Game 5, 112-103 victory over the Heat at the Garden. He plays all 48 minutes in the masterful performance.

May 26, 2022

Brunson’s breakout postseason ends on a low note. He shoots just 3-of-10 and manages just 10 points as the Warriors end the Mavericks’ season in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals, 120-110. It would be his last game in a Dallas uniform.

May 15, 2022

The Mavericks blast the Suns in Game 7, 123-90, and Brunson shines. He scores 24 points on 11-of-19 shooting in the one-sided road victory.

May 12, 2022

Trailing the Suns 3-2 in the Western Conference semifinals, Brunson helps the Mavericks force Game 7 by scoring 18 points and adding three steals in a 113-86 blowout win.

— Zach Braziller