The Knicks’ Jalen Brunson (Bill Moore photo)

On Sunday afternoon, Knicks point guard Jalen Brunson unwaveringly took full accountability for his team’s 108-101 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series at Madison Square Garden. 

“Today, I was horrific,” he bluntly self-assessed. “Very uncharacteristic by me, and this one’s on me. I gotta be better.” 

Brunson’s stats belied his words, though. He shot 11-23 for 25 points, had seven assists and four rebounds. However, a deeper dive into the numbers supports his assertion. Brunson, who shot 41.3% on 3-pointer attempts during the regular season, was 0-7 and atypically unsteady during fourth-quarter crunch time as the Heat’s swarming defense in the paint suffocated the 6-1 imaginative shot creator. 

Without Julius Randle, the Knicks’ regular season-scoring leader at 25.1 points per game, who was sidelined in Game 1 recovering from a left ankle sprain, the Heat lasered in on slowing down the Knicks’ most versatile offensive force.

“You can’t be discouraged,” Brunson made clear. “Playing in the NBA, a lot of it is all confidence. You have to stay confident, you have to stay poised, and you have to stick together as a team. We just have to come back hungry, be better, fix our mistakes, and then move forward from there.”

In just his first season as a Knick, Brunson has been one of the most transformative figures for the franchise over the past three decades. After being signed as a free agent last July after four seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, the 26-year-old Villanova product was the key element in the Knicks’ plus-10 win turnaround from last year’s campaign, when they ascended from 37-45 and 11th in the East to 47-35 and the No. 5 seed this postseason. 

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau has invariably raved about Brunson’s mental makeup, among other laudable traits, and was steadfast in his belief that in Game 2 of the best-of-seven series, the cerebral playmaker would alter what failed him. 

“They are going to make him work,” he said of the Heat’s physical, disciplined defense, “but that is what he faces every game. He didn’t make his threes, but for the most part, I thought they were great looks. We have a lot of confidence in him shooting the ball.” 

Yet, Game 2 on Tuesday night at the Garden had a similar result, at least for the opening half. Bunson was 1-6 for seven points and couldn’t solve Miami’s troublesome zone defense. Of note, he was also fighting through a sore right ankle that flared up late in Game 1. Seizing on the circumstances, the Heat held an unexpected 54-51 halftime advantage. 

What made it both startling and concerning for the charged-up home crowd was that they did so minus their superstar forward Jimmy Butler, who was on the bench in custom-fit clothing, resting his right sprained ankle suffered when Knicks forward Josh Hart inadvertently kicked it in the game’s closing minutes on Sunday. Butler has been spectacular this postseason, averaging 35.5 points and imposing his massive will on whoever has endeavored to oppose him. 

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With Randle back and registering 18 points in the first half and RJ providing an efficient offense, scoring 19 by hitting six of 10 shots, Brunson’s subpar play was mitigated. Still, he and his teammates were acutely aware they would need him to play at his customary high level to avert the ramifications of going to Miami for Game 3 this Saturday down 2-0. It would place the Knicks at long odds to take four of the next five. 

Brunson heard the call and responded. He put up 23 crucial points in the second half, ending the night with 30, including going 6-10 on 3-pointers, and carried his squad to a critically important victory.  

“He’s our leader, he’s our all-star, so you know we get from him every night and he showed up like we expected,” said Randle, who posted 25 crucial points.

Thibodeau echoed Randle’s viewpoint: “That’s who he is. A great leader, great toughness. He never disappoints you. Sometimes, we can fall short, but there’s no quit in him. He never quits on a play so I can’t say enough about that. He keeps everyone connected.”

Brunson deflected the credit and directed his praise toward the collective.  

“That is what we do,” he maintained. “We get into things together; we get out of things together. This is very much a together group that has great chemistry on and off the court. I think because we really care about each other, we are able to stick together during tough moments like that.”

Game 4 will be in Miami on Monday night and the series will head back to New York for Game 5 next Wednesday.

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