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Brunson is a Beast. Knicks Get Revenge in OKC
Eight days ago, it seemed like the Knicks season might be sinking into the abyss.
New York's embarrassing blowout loss to the OKC Thunder last Sunday (coupled with the Knicks' defeats to Boston, Atlanta in Brooklyn) had Knicks fans on edge. And rightfully so, considering the 'Bockers were about to embark on a daunting five-game road trip, which included two sets of back-to-backs, against teams that were a combined 26-5 at home.
Remember playing the Oregon Trail game in computer class back in the day? This trip had that kind of downside.
Well, the Knicks (and Coach Thibs) survived the journey out West. In fact, by beating the Thunder on Monday night, they posted a winning record on their excursion and return to NYC an even 9-9 through 18 games this season.
The star of the show for the Knicks in Oklahoma City was Jalen Brunson. Despite being the smallest player on the court, he relentlessly penetrated into the paint and used his astonishing assortment of aptitude and savvy to score at will amongst bigger, stronger foes.
Brunson finished with a season-high 34 points and a game-high nine assists vs. just two turnovers. Incredibly, he made 13 of the 14 two-point shots he attempted, with his only miss coming in the final minute. Afterward, Brunson acknowledged that he and his teammates had revenge on their minds. "What I was thinking about was they kind of punked us last time," Brunson said of OKC. "I wasn't really thinking about exactly how they did it. They had the mentality that we didn't last time we were on the court. My whole mindset was just, 'Let's play hard, let's play harder than them for 48 minutes, and whatever happens, happens.' We were able to come out with a win."
And it was Brunson's forays in the heart of the Thunder defense that enabled NY to walk away with the win.
Brunson became just the second Knicks ever to attempt at least 14 two-pointers and shot over 90% from inside the arc (joining Walt Bellamy, who hit 16 of his 17 attempts in February of 1966).
Brunson is also just the fourth player in NBA history to shoot above 90% from two-point range on 14+ attempts while also dishing out 9+ assists in the same game. The other three players in this exclusive club are Gary Payton, Kyrie Irving and Wilt Chamberlain (who did it twice).
The only players driving to the basket more frequently this season than Brunson are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Ja Morant and Luka Doncic. And of those three, Luka is the only player that has been more efficient on his drives (Brunson has converted at a 57% clip).
Coming into 2022-23, no guard has averaged more than 20 PPG while knocking down fewer than 1.3 three-pointers per game since Russ Westbrook in 2019-20. Brunson is currently averaging 20.8 PPG and just 1.2 made treys.
Watching a player of Brunson's size somehow find a way to score down low has been a joy to watch. He is a unique player who has carved out a unique way of putting points on the board in the three-point era.
NBA tracking data quantifies total FG attempts and makes by range. One such zone is "In The Paint - Non-Restricted Area." This is the area on each court between the dotted line and the free-throw stripe.
The NBA should rename it: "Jalen Brunson's Office."
How dominant has JB been in this space over the first month of the 2022-23 campaign? He has scored 130 points on 65 made field goals. No other player in the NBA has more than 100 points or more than 50 made FGs.
Here are the NBA's top-7 scorers in this zone:
Jalen Brunson: 65 made FGs (on 58% shooting)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 50 (43.5% shooting)
Kevin Durant: 48 (58.5%)
Trae Young: 46 (42.6%)
Luka Doncic: 44 (56.4%)
De'Aaron Fox: 43 (55.8%)
Ja Morant: 41 (on 38.7%)
For Brunson, who is barely over 6 feet, to be this effective and efficient amongst the trees is remarkable. And his ability to penetrate and punish defenses also enables Brunson to set up his teammates for wide-open looks on the perimeter. New York has attempted more than 16 wide-open three-pointers (no defender within six feet) per game this season. They are only shooting 34.6% on such shots, which ranks 28th in the NBA, but that's one reason for optimism going forward, as it's safe to assume those open jumpers will eventually start to fall at a higher rate. Last season, New York shot over 40% on wide-open 3's.
And, encouragingly, RJ Barrett snapped out of a gnarly slump by canning three of his four triple tries Monday night in OKC. Barrett finished with 25 points (on 10-of-16 shooting) to go along with eight rebounds and two assists. Coming into Monday's matchup vs. the Thunder, Barrett had missed 25 of his previous 26 three-point attempts. We'll see if he can maintain some positive momentum.
On the season, 35 of the 73 assisted baskets Barrett scored this season have come courtesy of Brunson passes.
Julius Randle also scored 25 points (on 9-for-16 FGs) and ripped down 11 rebounds on Monday. For Randle, 33 of his 77 assisted buckets this season have been from Brunson.
The point guard was quick to credit his teammates for their contributions Monday night. "It was a total team effort. Julius got us going early, and that helped open things up for me in the second half," Brunson told reporters. "I just tried to stay aggressive and take it at the defense, and I was fortunate the shots were dropping tonight."
* Outside of Barrett knocking down a few open jumpers, arguably the most encouraging takeaway from Monday's victory was the play of Quentin Grimes. He missed all four of his three-point attempts, but Grimes looked as sharp and spry as he has all season. His physical defense on SGA was much-needed. When fully healthy, Grimes has the potential to be the Knicks' most impactful two-way wing.
* Speaking of defense, Deuce McBride logged 15 minutes Monday night with Derrick Rose (sore big toe, right foot) sidelined. McBride's jumper wasn't falling, but he found ways to contribute, chipping in two steals and two assists. Dating back to the All-Star break last season, Deuce has logged 15+ minutes eight times. The Knicks are 8-0 in those eight contests.
* Immanuel Quickley, who had been struggling with his shot, was 6-of-8 from the floor and 3-of-4 from downtown en route to an 18/4/3 stat line. IQ was a game-high +11 in his 25 minutes off the bench.
* Mitchell Robinson drew the start in OKC but was ruled out in the second half due to right knee soreness. Fortunately, Thibs downplayed the injury after the game. "Just a little soreness, to be expected," said Thibs. "I thought he gave us really good minutes in the first half, but it'll be a work in progress each day."
* The Knicks have three full days off before hosting the Trail Blazers on Friday. Portland started the season on fire but has lost three in a row. Damian Lillard is dealing with a strained right calf and is expected to miss Friday's game. The Knicks then welcome Memphis to MSG on Sunday. The Grizzlies announced on Saturday that Ja Morant had been diagnosed with a Grade 1 sprain of his left ankle and was expected to miss at least a week. However, he has surprisingly been upgraded to questionable for Tuesday's matchup against the Kings. Thus it seems safe to assume he'll be back in time to torture the Knicks.