Jalen Brunson is usually stoic. Even-keeled. Never too high. Never too low. Emotionless without the negative connotation. Stone-faced.
He means business.
Thursday night was different. Different for one reason. Not because Brunson scored 40 to lead the Knicks to victory over the Indiana Pacers.
He’d done that before.
And not because a rabid Knicks fan base showered him with applause from opening tip to the final buzzer.
That’s become a common occurrence at The Garden of Dreams.
Thursday night, a dream came true.
It’s the illustrious NBA All-Star appearance that’s evaded the Knicks’ star all along. Last year, Julius Randle represented New York but coaches left Brunson off the ballot despite a breakout season after leaving the Dallas Mavericks for the Knicks in free agency.
This year, Brunson forced the issue.
This time, it was a foregone conclusion.
Brunson would have been an All-Star starter had the fan vote not been so heavily weighted over the votes from NBA players and NBA media. Brunson beat Milwaukee Bucks star Damian Lillard, 48-9, on the media vote and 78-61 on votes from their peers — but Lillard beat Brunson by almost 750,000 fan votes.
Which meant it came down to the coaches, and his former head coach in Dallas, Rick Carlisle, had a front-row seat: not only to the Madison Square Garden crowd’s reaction to the news Brunson had become an All-Star, but also to the impact Brunson has made in New York as current head coach of the Indiana Pacers, the Knicks’ opponent on Thursday night.
The Brunson Effect has vaulted the Knicks into a different kind of conversation. New York is now within arm’s reach of the Eastern Conference’s second seed. Most NBA general managers had the Knicks pegged for fifth.
“No surprise. Zero. That kid is special. He was special for us in Dallas. There’s just something about him,” Carlisle said ahead of tipoff on Thursday. “He has a bulldog competitiveness. He’s heard all the haters and detractors for so long that he just munches that stuff up and spits it out.
“Now he’s, you know, All-Star: That’s happening.”
* * *
Brunson is slapping his face and beating his chest. A 6-foot Donkey Kong parading about The Garden.
It was his way of complaining — after taking an un-called foul on a driving floater — about not getting calls. Another constant at The Garden, right up there with the “M-V-P” chants and explosive scoring nights from New York’s newest All-Star.
It’s something the Knicks have complained to the NBA league office about all season to no avail: the smallest guy on the court attacks the rim time and time again and rarely gets the benefit of the whistle.
Only one player in all of basketball has driven to the rim more times than Brunson (820): Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who leads the league with 1,099 drives on the season.
Brunson, however, ranks 14th among drivers in free throws attempted at 110. Gilgeous-Alexander has attempted almost double the number of free throws (212) as the Knicks’ star.
Brunson has attempted the same number of free throws as reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid despite appearing in 12 more games than Embiid this season. Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton has attempted four more free throws than Brunson despite logging 450 fewer minutes. The NBA built its point of emphasis on irregular shooting motions around Atlanta’s Trae Young, but Young has attempted nine more free throws than Brunson despite driving to the rim 109 fewer times this season.
Thursday night wasn’t about free throws. It was about respect.
Brunson had already manhandled the Indiana defense when it happened: After catching an inbound pass on the opposite end of the basket, Indiana’s Andrew Nembhard inadvertently, but effectively punched Brunson in the eye.
Down went Frazier. No whistle blown. As Brunson toiled on the floor in pain with his head buried in his hands, Indiana’s Jalen Smith fetched the live ball and dunked to give the Pacers a 100-99 lead late in the fourth quarter.
Tom Thibodeau called a timeout. Brunson sat on The Garden floors in disbelief. Then he rose to his feet. A championship boxer in a title fight.
“The guy, his resolve is so great. He takes a beating. I think he needs to be protected,” Thibodeau said after the game. “There were several plays in which he got hit, and if it’s a foul, it’s a foul. Call it.”
Out of the timeout, Brunson darted from the restricted area out to half-court to retrieve the ball from Donte DiVincenzo. Then he hit Pacers defensive stopper Aaron Nesmith with a hesitation, in-and-out crossover. Nembhard left his man to help and swiped down on the play, but it was too late: Brunson split the two defenders, knifed through the lane and put the floater over the rim protector.
And this time, the whistle sounded: It was foul No. 6 on Nesmith. A game-swinging play that turned the tide for good.
“The thing that I love about what he does is he just keeps competing,” said Thibodeau. “They were very aggressive in terms of double teaming, and he didn’t stop moving and he found ways to get the ball back and make plays. He scored. He distributed. He just kept going. You just love his competitiveness. He never goes away.
“He comes right back on the next play and hits an and-1. Referees sometimes are not perfect. None of us are. So [if] they miss it, they missed it. Move on. And that’s what I like about him. He goes to the next play. And I think that’s critical.”
* * *
There’s a goat on the loose at Madison Square Garden.
Brunson called it a “Donte,” but during his postgame media sessions, a teammate or two will softly “baaaa” like a goat. It happened twice on Friday and has become just as common as missed foul calls and “M-V-P” chants at The Garden.
A goat, of course, is known more in basketball as an acronym, not an animal: greatest of all-time.
Brunson may be an individual All-Star, but his teammates wear the honor, too.
Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo and Ryan Arcidiacono spent the unseen hours in the gym with their leader, their floor general, their All-Star, as college teammates at Villanova.
Hart, for example, is normally an unapologetic jester but broke character when asked about Brunson’s All-Star nod on Thursday.
“Oh man, I’m just incredibly happy, incredibly proud of him,” he said. “He put the work in for a long time and hopefully it’s the first of many, but for him to achieve that goal, that dream, it’s amazing.”
DiVincenzo didn’t hold back, either. Not only was Brunson a snub as an All-Star starter, but he also lost Eastern Conference Player of the Month of January honors to Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell despite both the Knicks owning a better record than the Cavaliers and Brunson averaging more points than Mitchell in the month.
Brunson captained the Knicks to victory to close January and walk into February despite Julius Randle (dislocated right shoulder) and OG Anunoby (right elbow inflammation) missing each of the last three games.
Brunson led the Knicks to their first 14-win month in 30 years.
“What you want me to say? He did exactly what everyone expects him to do, what he’s been doing all season long,” DiVincenzo said. “1-A, 1-B, it doesn’t matter: The dude is an All-Star. He’s an MVP caliber season right now. He should be the player of the month this month. What else can I possibly say? The dude’s doing everything he possibly can for us to win games. It’s not easy right now with Julius going down, OG going down, [Mitchell Robinson] not being here. Everything’s been thrown against us and he’s still willing us to win games.”
It’s an honor for Brunson, who found out he’d been tabbed an All-Star when his father, Knicks assistant coach Rick Brunson, gave him a look from the sidelines moments ahead of tipoff.
Coming back from down 15 points to beat the Pacers on the night he earned his first All-Star appearance was a cherry on top.
“It was really cool the whole experience,” he said. “How we won, obviously what happened before the game. You always work for certain moments but you never know how to react once they happen. So, it was special.”
Thibodeau called the moment “surreal.” He remembered Brunson coming to the Knicks when his father played in New York in the early 1990s, and he remembers Jalen having a seriousness to him that mirrored Rick.
“He was so serious, even then, whether he was doing an imitation of Latrell Sprewell or Allan Houston or Larry Johnson or Patrick [Ewing]. And he had it spot-on. He was, like, six and he had all their moves down,” Thibodeau recalled. “And then following him through high school and then Villanova and then his pro career and each step of the way, there’s always been naysayers, and he always proves them wrong. It’s great for the family, too. What Rick has put in and not only Rick but his wife, Sandra, and Jalen’s sister — it’s been a family commitment and to see it, it’s special.”
Brunson broke character, too, an unmistakable smile ripping through the factory setting even-keel in his walk-off interview. The Garden crowd stayed late, then showered showered him with cheers.
“I’ve got nothing to say, man,” a teary-eyed, choked-up All-Star guard said. “I’ve got nothing to say.”
First appeared on www.nydailynews.com