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Opinion

A laughing stock no more, Knicks' magical playoff run manna from heaven for tortured franchise

Jalen Brunson is firing the New York Knicks to the playoffs. . (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Expert
11th May, 2024
4

As much as fans of the other franchises hate to admit it, there is magic in the NBA air when the New York Knicks are in the championship equation.

The Knicks have New York partying like it’s 1999 when they last made the Finals with their trademark tenacity to have a strong chance of making it out of the Eastern Conference bracket. 

Despite Saturday’s 111-106 game-three loss to the Pacers in Indiana, they are up 2-1 in their second round series and with home-court advantage, they should be able to advance to a likely showdown with Boston for the Eastern crown. 

A throwback Knicks vs Celtics stoush is the NBA’s dream match-up although Indiana and Cleveland respectively won’t go down without a fight.

New York’s 4-2 first-round playoff triumph over Philadelphia and their early ascendancy over the Pacers has revolved around Jalen Brunson’s elevation from All-Star to superstar.

The 27-year-old point guard joined an all-time group of legends in Michael Jordan, Jerry West and Bernard King as the only players in NBA history to record four consecutive 40-point playoff performances when he led New York past the Sixers and onto another victory in the series opener against the Pacers. 

He is approaching the halfway point of a four-year $104 million deal which was criticised when the Knicks signed him from Dallas as being an overpay. 

It is now not only the best-value deal in the league it is arguably one of the greatest dollar for output contracts signed in NBA history given that on the open market now, he would fetch a super-max offer upwards of $60m per season.

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Brunson recently revealed he was keen to stick around with Dallas as a thankyou to the franchise that drafted him but the most the Mavericks would offer was $55m over four years. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 25: Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks celebrates after making a three-point shot against the New Orleans Pelicans during the first half at Madison Square Garden on February 25, 2023 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Jalen Brunson. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

That is taking lowballing to a new level – the Mavs have paid a heavy price for not properly evaluating the rising star they had on their roster who fit in nicely alongside Lujka Doncic.

Brunson’s switch to New York couldn’t have worked out better for him and after Villanova college teammates Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo were reunited with him in the Big Apple, the Knicks have been on a tear all season.

The Knicks entered the playoffs without All-Star forward Julius Randle duo to season-ending shoulder surgery and centre Mitchell Robinson (ankle) and veteran sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic (foot and wrist) are now both out long term. 

OG Anunoby missed game three in Indiana due to a hamstring problem but should be right to return later in the series.

It’s last man standing in New York but the ‘Nova Knicks trio are holding the side together. 

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Hart has played nearly every minute of the playoffs while DiVincenzo and Brunson are also logging 40-plus minutes each match as coach Tom Thibodeau doubles down on his reputation for playing his starters into the ground.

After playing 41:52 in the series opener against Philadelphia at the start of the playoffs, Hart has played the full 48 three times, as well as 53 in an overtime loss but has still managed to be the most active player on the court, hustling until the final siren each time.

It’s an interesting experiment in the age of sports science dictating player workloads. Hart, Brunson and DiVincenzo are clearly super fit but whether they can sustain the demands of huge minutes deep into the playoffs, particularly when so many role players are dropping like flies around them, is a calculated gamble by Thibodeau. 

Even when Brunson’s offensive output dips like the game-three loss to the Pacers, his support crew steps up with DiVincenzo scoring 35 and Alec Burks getting an extended run off the bench to chip in 14 valuable points.

The Pacers are going to try to run the Knicks off the floor with their high-pace, offensive-focused game plan.

Tyrese Haliburton is returning to peak form with 34 in the game-two loss and 35 in Saturday’s win while his fellow All-Star, ex-Toronto forward Pascal Siakam added 26 on 9/14 shooting to break out of his mini slump.

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But with the city of New York buzzing and Knicks fans coming out of the closet everywhere (as well as celebrity row filling up with A-listers at Madison Square Garden), momentum is still on their side. 

Brunson has already overtaken Carmelo Anthony’s career playoff points total for the Knicks and is already arguably their most popular player since Patrick Ewing’s long reign of getting the team close but not all the way to a title in the 1980s and ‘90s. 

He has a rare ability for an under-sized player to hit tough shots over taller opponents – he knocked down a three with 40 seconds left on Saturday to tie up the scores before Andrew Nembhard’s prayer at the end of the shot clock saved the Pacers on their last possession.

For a franchise that is now more than half a century removed from their last of their two championships, the current playoff push is manna from basketball heaven.

There is still a helluva long way to go for them to make it out of this series and challenge Boston for bragging rights in the East but for long-suffering Knicks fans, even though they are a notoriously pessimistic bunch, the simple fact that they have hope in the post-season after decades of underachievement is all they need. 

And even if they come up short in the playoffs, the Knicks will have the chance to bolster their roster in the off-season and after a long list of marquee recruits turning down the chance to join the franchise from LeBron James to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they are again a destination franchise. 

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With Giannis Antetokounmpo’s long-term future at Milwaukee clouded, Doncic no certainty to remain in Dallas and the likes of Devin Booker, Mikael Bridges and Donovan Mitchell getting itchy feet, New York could be on the verge of being perennial challengers for the title for the first time since the legendary 1990s Knicks.

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