How the 76ers are making life difficult for Jalen Brunson … and how the Knicks are adjusting

Jalen Brunson watched his old Villanova buddies, Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo, shine brightest in the biggest moments of the Knicks’ first two games in the 2024 NBA playoffs. He watched centers Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein take turns making life difficult on 76ers superstar Joel Embiid and dominating the offensive glass, providing vital lifelines for a New York attack that has needed every possible pathway to points.

He watched backup point guard Deuce McBride pop for 21 points off the bench in Game 1, the performance of his young career. He watched trade-deadline addition Bojan Bogdanović make his presence felt in the second unit, chipping in 13 points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes in Game 1, and drilling a pair of pivotal 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter of Game 2.

He watched it all, and he couldn’t say enough about it.

“They’ve been playing amazing,” Brunson said after the Knicks’ thrilling (and controversial) Game 2 win. “If only I could get up to their level at some point.”

Brunson had struggled mightily to serve as the kind of offensive force that finished fourth in the NBA in scoring, shooting 16-for-55 (29.1%) from the field through the first two games and just 2-for-12 from 3-point range — well below the marks he turned in during his superstar breakout — thanks largely to the Sixers executing a smart game plan intended to put him through the wringer.

“He’s a great, great player,” Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse said before Game 2. “We try to make those guys work for everything.”

The Sixers kept making Brunson work in Thursday’s Game 3. He covered more than 3.4 miles of ground in his 45-plus minutes on the court, well above his season average. He racked up 107 touches, by far a game high. (The only player to top 100 touches per game during the regular season, or see more of the ball than Brunson in these playoffs? Nikola Jokić.)

New York Knicks' Jalen Brunson (11) tries to get a shot past Philadelphia 76ers' Tobias Harris, left, and Nicolas Batum during the second half of Game 3 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)New York Knicks' Jalen Brunson (11) tries to get a shot past Philadelphia 76ers' Tobias Harris, left, and Nicolas Batum during the second half of Game 3 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Brunson also found himself under the microscope on defense, especially in the third quarter, when Philadelphia scored a blistering 43 points on just 21 possessions — an obscene 204.8 offensive rating, a level of efficiency so large and preposterous that it conjures images of the All-NBA team running layup lines against weeping 6-year-olds — largely by targeting Brunson with staggered screens. Those actions led to to shot after open shot for Embiid, who scored 18 of his playoff-career-high 50 points in the frame, propelling the Sixers to a 125-114 win that got them on the board in the best-of-seven first-round series between the East’s No. 2 and No. 7 seeds.

Amid all that action, though, Brunson did finally get up to not only his teammates’ level, but to his own All-Star and soon-to-be All-NBA standard. The Knicks’ leader scored 39 points on 13-for-27 shooting — two off of his previous postseason high water mark of 41, which he poured in against the Jazz in 2022 and the Heat last spring — to go with a playoff-career-high 13 assists.

Brunson became just the second player in Knicks franchise history to score 35 points and dish 10 assists in a playoff game, joining the legendary Walt Frazier, who popped for 36 and 19 in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals — colloquially known as “The Willis Reed Game.” (Which, considering the night Clyde had, seems a bit unfair!)

Brunson — as you might expect — didn’t linger long on that particular silver lining when he took the podium at Wells Fargo Center late Thursday.

“I’m not really worried about what I did,” Brunson said after the game. “Our team lost a game where we gave up 43 points in the third quarter, so my main focus is how can we re-adjust to that.”

While Brunson’s right to note the need for his teammates and Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau’s staff to tighten the defensive screws, keeping the Sixers from evening the series in Sunday’s Game 4 will also require New York to continue scoring at an efficient enough clip to combat what Philly’s getting from Embiid and All-Star point guard Tyrese Maxey. That’s easier when Brunson’s able to more comfortably get to his spots and lock into the rhythm that the Sixers had succeeded in interrupting through the series’ first two games.

That interruption begins with Philly’s first line of defense: Kelly Oubre Jr. The veteran swingman’s 6-foot-7 frame, 7-foot-3 wingspan, quick feet and active hands make him a handful for the smaller Brunson. Nurse tasks Oubre with making Brunson fight for every inch of space he gets on the 94-by-50 — full-court pressure after baskets, aggressive ball denial in the half-court, fighting to stay attached through off-ball screens, the works.

When Oubre checks out, Nicolas Batum — 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, less athletic than Oubre but one of the league’s savvier veteran defenders — takes his turn, ensuring that Brunson has to keep dealing with the length, physicality and aggression every time he looks at the basket.

“He’s still gonna score,” Oubre said after Game 1. “He’s still going to do what he does. He can shoot the ball anytime he wants, so, of course, that’s tough to guard. But at the end of the day, you gotta just stay solid for 48 minutes against him.”

Maintaining that solid state takes a “many hands make light work” approach. And I do mean “many hands.”

The Sixers’ on-ball defenders clutch and grab their way through navigating the thicket of screens Brunson takes, both on and off the ball. Their help defenders show high hands in the passing lanes early when Brunson comes off a screen, or curls around a dribble handoff, making sure to load up in the gaps behind the point of attack to make the 27-year-old lead guard see rush-hour traffic whenever he turns the corner.

They’ll dig down hard on Brunson’s drives, knifing their hands into his pocket to try to interrupt his dribble. When he puts his head down and gets into his bag, they’ll send a second — or, if necessary, third — defender to get a tight contest on his trademark turnaround and stepback jumpers.

“They played really well defensively,” Brunson said after Game 1, which saw him go 8-for-26 from the field. “They were throwing bodies, clogging the paint, making everything difficult.”

They’ve been able to do it in part because they’ve got a great big eraser lying in wait behind them. Philly’s point-of-attack defenders on Brunson — a rotating cast that has also included Tyrese Maxey, Kyle Lowry and Tobias Harris, and that might include De’Anthony Melton, who’d missed most of the last three months with a “recurring lumbar spine injury,” but who was back on the active roster for Game 3 — have aimed to funnel Brunson into drop-coverage vortex Embiid, in whose minutes Sixers opponents have shot far less frequently and far less accurately in the paint this season.

Embiid, whose mobility has been limited in the series by ongoing woes in his surgically repaired left knee, has gotten plenty of assistance in plugging the middle from a schematic decision to have whoever’s defending Hart — primarily Lowry — help way off the Knicks’ energetic swingman, preferring to leave a shaky and sometimes unwilling shooter (31% from 3-point range in both the 2023 playoffs and the 2023-24 regular season) alone on the perimeter than to allow Brunson to play one-on-one:

Once the point-of-attack defenders go over the top of the ball screen and push Brunson toward that congested interior, the job isn’t done. They also have to keep applying pressure from the back side with the kind of rear-view contests that can rush Brunson’s shot — or even snuff it out entirely:

Through two games, the plan worked. Brunson hadn’t shot that poorly in consecutive games all season. New York’s half-court offense, which averaged a middle-of-the-pack 98.3 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, had produced just 86.3 points per 100 through two games against Philly — which would be dead-last in the 2024 postseason if the Cavaliers-Magic series wasn’t happening.

“I gotta be better than that,” Brunson said after going 8-for-29 in Game 2. “I will be. At some point.”

After the Knicks survived the gridlock for two games, thanks to overwhelming offensive rebounding and Hart making the Sixers pay for leaving him open — the seventh-year pro made 80 3-pointers in 81 regular-season games this season; he made 10 in 11 games in the 2023 postseason; he’s made 12 in three games against Philly, in 23 tries — Brunson arrived at that point on Thursday, getting a transition 3 to go in the game’s opening minutes and then getting off to the races.

“He was really good,” Nurse said after Game 3. “I just think he is really good, and I don’t think you’re gonna keep a guy that good down for a whole series.”

Heading into Game 3, you wondered if New York’s recipe might include a steadier diet of ball screens set higher on the floor, which would give Brunson a longer runway to get downhill, get to his spots and get creative:

And there was some of that (though perhaps not enough):

You also figured it might include more frequently playing in the two-man game with Hartenstein, whose gift for playmaking in the pocket in the middle of the floor — and whose seemingly unerring floater — had served as a vital release valve:

And there was some of that, too — most notably in the second half, as Brunson responded to the Sixers putting their bullseye on him by training his squarely on Embiid, bringing the lumbering and limping big man into the action, forcing him to show he could move his feet on the perimeter, often to great effect:

Part of it, though, was also for Brunson to, in Thibodeau’s words, “just keep going, [because] you never know when something changes.”

Sometimes, the tough shots you’ve been clanking — the contested ones in traffic, the deep pulls off the bounce, the ones you put up with leaden legs after beating yet another full-court press — will start finding the bottom of the net:

And sometimes, maybe you just take the money that’s lying on the table.

As Thibs loves to say, “The game will tell you what to do,” and when the defense is throwing the kitchen sink at you, someone else is open. Sure, maybe Hart cools down from beyond the arc. But given the choice between making the simple pass to an open teammate and trying to force a contested 19-footer over three outstretched arms, maybe giving that teammate the chance to earn his paycheck is the better part of valor:

“We’ve been on his shoulders this whole season,” Hart said after Game 1. “And when he struggles, you know, that’s when we have to pick him up.”

They have, and as a result, the Knicks are halfway to Round 2. With Embiid looking more and more imposing as the series wears on, though, it’s going to be tough for them to make it the rest of the way unless Brunson can stay true to his form — the one that’s going to land him on MVP ballots, and the one he rediscovered in Game 3.

“That’s something that we know he’s capable of,” Hart said after Game 3. “He knows he can make shots, and that’s good in terms of confidence for him, going into Sunday.”

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