There were 19,044 sets of eyes frozen on a basketball arching out of one corner of Madison Square Garden, the one opposite the Knicks’ bench, 19,044 who were feeling numb and were fully prepared to feel something else — Rage? Dejection? Misery? — when the downward sweep of that ball splashed cleanly through the net.
The buzzer groaned with the ball mid-parabola, and so did many of those 19,044. Tyler Herro, who’d already drained four from distance, was fixing to remove an “r” from his surname on behalf of the Heat. The Knicks were about to lose another un-loseable game. Impossibly, they were about to present Miami a gift, and add another dent to the Garden as a home-court fortress.
Funny thing happened, though.
Herro kept the extra “r.” He missed. The ball bounded away. The Knicks had survived, 106-104, against a team directly ahead of them in the standings. And a feeling that had begun to percolate about half an hour before game time at the Garden suddenly became abundantly clear.
Jalen Brunson was robbed.
The Knicks won the game without Brunson, who was sidelined with a non-COVID illness, and that’s a credit to the players who were able to suit up, notably RJ Barrett (30 points, eight rebounds, four assists) and Julius Randle, freshly named to the Eastern Conference All-Stars as a reserve, who had 23/10/6.
But Brunson’s absence, notable throughout, was especially glaring in those frantic final moments when it seemed that the Knicks were hellbent on sabotaging themselves. A few hours earlier, a few minutes past 7, the TNT studio crew had revealed the seven reserves for the East. Brunson’s name wasn’t on the list. Which was absurd. Which is absurd.
Don’t want to take the word of a guy who scored exactly 17 points as a high school varsity basketball player? That’s fine. Maybe you’d prefer to hear from Charles Barkley, an 11-time NBA All-Star who knows what an All-Star looks like.
“They’re a totally different team with him,” Barkley said, after it was revealed that he, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith had all put Brunson on their list of the seven reserves for the game, and all expressed dismay at his exclusion. “They can win a round in the playoffs if they get the right matchup.”
Now, Chuck might be a little carried away with that last part. But not the first. The difference between last year’s Knicks and this year’s Knicks is stark and it is thanks to one player: Brunson. We already saw in Dallas a few weeks ago what the Knicks look like down the stretch without their quarterback, one of the most unforgivable losses in team history.
We almost saw the sequel Thursday night.
Now, look: even with Brunson the Knicks aren’t exactly the most fearsome closers you’ll ever see. They have frittered away endgames plenty, even with Brunson in the lineup. But those were almost all a product of the make-or-miss nature of the NBA that Tom Thibodeau preaches so regularly.
Brunson doesn’t blithely throw the ball away, as Barrett did — twice — in the game’s final minutes. Brunson doesn’t stumble and fall when the Heat are eager to foul, the way Randle did, setting up the terrifying sequence of Herro lining it up at the horn.
Brunson should’ve won a toss-up with Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday, who is a better defender but hasn’t been Brunson’s equal in any other area. And if it’s a choice between Brunson and Randle for a Knicks representative? Randle has had a fine bounce-back year, yes. Much of that is directly attributed to Brunson’s presence. If you watch the Knicks regularly, you know there is little point in disputing that.
“He deserves it,” Thibodeau said.
Now, if Brunson was healthy enough to have spoken Thursday night there’s no way he would’ve said so. For one thing, he’s the very definition of “good teammate,” so he wouldn’t only be happy for Randle, he’d mean it, too.
For another? It’s probably not the worst thing in the world for Brunson to spend the nine days between Feb. 15 and Feb. 24 kicking back, relaxing, maybe taking in a few Villanova games, maybe finding a beach somewhere far, far away from Salt Lake City.
It has been an exhausting 49 games for Brunson. He has played hurt. He has played injured. He could use a few days off, and if the Knicks want to make a second-half run they could surely use a healed-up Brunson. He doesn’t need to play in the All-Star Game.
Doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be an All-Star. The Knicks somehow survived Thursday night without him. They don’t want to make a habit of having to try that trick again.