Jalen Brunson’s balancing act spurs Knicks .500 start

Alder Almo
Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks
Nov 21, 2022; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Luguentz Dort (5) during the first quarter at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Lu Dort earned a five-year 82.5 million extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder primarily because of his unique defensive skill. Dort has grown into one of the top defenders in the league. But on Monday night, there was nothing he could do to stop New York Knicks point guard Jalen Brunson.

The pint-sized but bull-strong Brunson dropped a season-high 34 points on a 14-of-20 shooting night to lead the Knicks to a 129-119 payback win. He destroyed the Thunder inside the arc, making his first 13 shots before missing his final attempt in the closing moments of a 129-119 Knicks win.

“It happens. [Brunson] was hitting tough shots. That’s comfortable shots for him. He was making them. Nothing I could really do if he made those types of tough shots. He just had it going. He had a good game.”

Lu Dort postgame via NBA.com

Brunson made six field goals against Dort. The crafty lefty Knicks point guard made a living on the left side of the court, hitting all but three of his total makes.

But Brunson didn’t just score. He also set up his teammates with nine assists — four of them to RJ Barrett, who snapped out of a shooting funk with 25 points. His ninth assist went to Julius Randle, who also had 25 points.

“[Brunson], Randle and Barrett are the top-line guys in our scouting report, and they all had 25-plus points [Tuesday night]. They beat us. I’m not questioning our guys’ effort by any stretch of the imagination, but we’ve got to dig in and have some pride on the floor.”

Mark Daigneault postgame via NBA.com

Brunson passed the ball 21 times each to Barrett and Randle. For the season, Brunson has been sharing the ball with the team’s incumbent top two players — averaging 18.6 passes to Randle and 14.6 passes to Barrett. So naturally, the bulk of Brunson’s team-leading 6.7-assist average has gone to Barrett (1.9) and Randle (1.8), per NBA.com tracking data.

Brunson’s arrival has brought stability to the Knicks’ offense which Randle dominated in the past three seasons. The cerebral point guard has successfully toed the delicate line of the balancing act — hunting for his shot and setting up his teammates.

“It’s definitely a constant battle, and I’ve got a lot of great players, great weapons on our team. And when [the opposing defense] don’t want to help, it shows I can get into my spots and put the ball in the basket. And then when they do help, and I know I have a lot of weapons out there that can make plays.

So it’s definitely a constant battle. But my teammates and the coaching staff would give me a lot of confidence to make decisions.”

Jalen Brunson postgame via MSG Network

Brunson’s balancing act has spurred the Knicks to a surprising 9-9 record amid a troubling stretch before this West Coast trip. The Knicks not only survived the make-or-brake five-game road trip but came out winning three that galvanized the team.

Brunson is at the heart of this Knicks’ resurgence and is creeping into the All-Star conversations with every performance, such as Monday night’s.

His 20.8 points and 6.7 assists are both career highs. And despite the uptick in usage and minutes, his shooting percentage (49.6 from 50.2 percent last season) and turnover rate (1.7 from 1.6 last season) stayed the same.

“The best part of his game is he can give you whatever you need. If you need scoring, he gives you that you need to play make, and when they were doubling at the end, he was creating layups for us. And so he can read the game really well. And that’s a big plus. That’s what you want out of your point guard.”

Tom Thibodeau postgame via NBA.com

Brunson has been everything the Knicks had hoped for when they pried him away from Dallas, which cost them only $104 million over four years.

That deal is proving to be a bargain. And if Brunson continues to blossom into an All-Star point guard, then getting the next available star would be easier.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo