Jalen Brunson Credit: Bill Moore photo

The stretch run is upon the Knicks and the other NBA teams contending for a playoff spot and favorable postseason seedings. The Knicks return from their eight-day All-Star break tomorrow to face the Washington Wizards on the road. They went into the hiatus 33–27 and winners of five of their last six games, including three straight, to wrest the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference from the No. 7 seed Miami Heat, which are a half game behind the Knicks at 32–27.  

Tom Thibodeau has and will continue to maintain the Knicks as focused on the moment, purpose-driven on defeating the immediate opponent. No one should doubt that the Knicks’ intense head coach is not looking beyond the Wizards and New Orleans Pelicans, which will visit Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

Clichés notwithstanding, Thibodeau, along with those wholly invested in the franchise, is acutely cognizant of the ramifications and dichotomy of ending the regular season at No. 6 instead of No.7. No. 6 assures a playoff berth and 7 only grants a chance to compete in the NBA Play-In Tournament with the No. 8, 9 and 10 seeds for the remaining two spots.

As they have been doing for 60 games, forward Julius Randle and point guard Jalen Brunson must lead the Knicks’ charge in averting the Play-In. Both have been outstanding this season. Randle made the second All-Star appearance of his nine-year career last weekend, leading the Knicks in scoring (24.8) and rebounding (10.8). He and center Isaiah Hartenstein are the only Knicks to play in all 60 games.

Brunson, who signed with the Knicks as a free agent last July after four years with the Dallas Mavericks, which drafted him out of Villanova in 2018, with the 33rd overall pick in the second round, had a convincing case to be named an All-Star. Brunson is averaging 23.9 points and 6.2 assists, but numbers don’t reflect his comprehensive value to the Knicks. Qualitatively, Brunson  has filled a long void at the point guard position for the franchise, assumed an immeasurable leadership role, and instilled heightened mental and physical toughness throughout the roster that characterizes the team’s identity.  

“He’s good and he knows he’s good,” said Thibodeau after Brunson paced the Knicks with 28 points in a 122–101 blowout of the Atlanta Hawks on the road in their last game before the All-Star.

After the Wizards and Pelicans, the Knicks will host the Boston Celtics at MSG on Monday and the Brooklyn Nets at the Garden next Wednesday.  

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