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Jalen Brunson channels Willis Reed exactly 54 years later to save Knicks
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Jalen Brunson channels Willis Reed exactly 54 years later to save Knicks

Mike Vaccaro

Mike Vaccaro

N.B.A

The joint had been demolished. Are you joking? There was no sadder place in New York City than Madison Square Garden, just before 9:20 Wednesday night.

Depressed? These were 19,812 people who stood in line to sit on Dr. Jennifer Melfi’s couch. The place had been so exciting and hopeful. The Knicks were big. Life was good.

Then Jalen Brunson stumbled off the floor.

Jalen Brunson celebrates the Knicks’ 130-121 Game 2 victory over the Pacers during the third quarter. Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

He stayed off the floor for the final 15 minutes and 32 seconds of the first half. The Knicks were up by seven when he left. At half time they were already behind by 10.

Knicks fans are used to their team falling short. One of the endearing elements of this team is that they almost relish that challenge. This was different. This was Brunson.

This was the season when I walked off the floor in the garden.

And then, in the blink of an eye, the season went off the floor again.

The tunnel that Willis Reed trudged through exactly 54 years earlier is long gone. But it didn’t take long for those in the stands to notice Brunson floundering back.

At first it was a few screams, then a roar, then a wave. It wasn’t just louder because about 8,000 people undoubtedly flooded the bars and beer lines, getting a head start on Thursday morning hangovers and drinking to forget.

But the word spread. The faithful left their healing Heinekens and their 7&7’s. And suddenly it was as if someone had strapped paddles to the Garden’s chest, and someone else shouted “Clear!” had shouted. The heart rate was back in sinus rhythm. The night was back. The season was back.

A devastated Willis Reed walks onto the court for the Knicks’ Game 7 victory over the Lakers in 1970. From the lens of George Kalinsky

“I wanted to try it,” Brunson would say.

“He’s a warrior,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “There was no doubt in our minds that he would come back.”

Look, it may be possible that in a week or so we’ll look back on this epic 130-121 Knicks win as a final score of sorts. Brunson is still injured, his right foot is now a problem. OG Anunoby, the only reason another game had to be saved when Brunson stepped back on the floor, now has a hamstring issue. The Knicks are only halfway through the Eastern Conference finals.

That’s for later. That’s for Friday.

Enjoy this one for now. Enjoy the way the Garden turned upside down at the sight of Brunson, and how the player and the building fed off each other, with Brunson dropping 24 of his 29 points in the second half. Enjoy how the Knicks who stayed alive held the pinball Pacers offense to 48 points in the final 24 minutes.

The Post’s back page for May 9, 2024.

For now, think like Brunson.

“We found a way,” he said. “That is it.”

That is it. Earlier in the day, it was announced that Brunson finished fifth in the MVP voting. Nikola Jokic is a worthy winner. But no one — not Jokic, not Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, not Luka Doncic, not anyone — is more valuable to his team than Brunson.

This is not an abstract concept either. The Knicks were plus-26 with Brunson. They were minus-15 with him in the locker room.

Jalen Brunson fouls TJ McConnel during the fourth quarter of the Knicks’ Game 2 victory. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Brunson even makes math easy.

“A great leader,” Tom Thibodeau said of his star. About the rest of his team, he added: “I like the way we responded in the third and the way we finished in the fourth.”

Brunson’s teammates looked like a different group when they saw No. 11. They knew. Much later, of course, it was Josh Hart who gave voice to what so many Knicks fans were saying when he passed Brunson in the locker room.

“Okay, Willis,” Hart said. He is an elite needle maker. But he was only partly joking.

After all, it’s not just customers who react viscerally to these moments. There was Anunoby (28 points, 10-for-19 from the floor) and Josh Hart (19/15/7), there was Donte DiVincenzo (28 points, six threes) and Isaiah Hartenstein 14/12/8). There was Precious Achiuwa, eight big points in 28 minutes.

Don’t you think it bothered them when they let Brunson shake off the pain? And look, it may be sacrilege to point this out, but on the night Reed stumbled into legend on May 8, 1970, he scored just four points and played 27 minutes. Clyde Frazier let the captain’s inspiration carry the day by then carrying the Knicks the rest of the way.

This time Brunson did both. Even he didn’t know if he could dare.

“I’m glad I did that,” he said.

“We needed him,” Achiuwa said.

There is still a lot to be played, unlike ’70. If those Knicks had to win – thank goodness – ten more games to win a title like these Knicks do… well, they didn’t. It will be a struggle to find two more that can make the Pacers go away.

For now, the Knicks can enjoy one of the great nights they’ve ever had at the Garden, and you can too. It seems like we say that after every game. Just because it’s true.




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