Home News In Jalen Brunson’s return, Knicks stun rolling Magic to reclaim East’s No....

In Jalen Brunson’s return, Knicks stun rolling Magic to reclaim East’s No. 4 seed

One team walked into Madison Square Garden on Friday on a five-game winning streak and victors in 13 of their last 16 games.

The other squad entered the arena battered and bruised, short three starters with a fourth recently returning from a knee injury.

Some things aren’t always what they seem — and a Knicks team dropping the first three games against the Magic this season snapped Orlando’s winning streak with a 98-74 victory at The Garden on Friday.

It’s the fewest points the Knicks have held an opponent to since 2012.

All-Star point guard Jalen Brunson returned to the lineup after missing two games with a knee contusion, and the shorthanded Knicks used a hot-shooting first quarter to secure a win catapulting them back to the East’s No. 4 seed.

In the first quarter of Tuesday’s 16-point loss to the No. 10 Atlanta Hawks, the Knicks couldn’t buy a three.

And in the opening period of a must-win victory over an Eastern Conference playoff opponent on Friday, treys were on sale two-for-one at The Garden.

And after losing the first quarters in their last two losses to the Hawks and Golden State Warriors, 68-34 combined, the quick start was a welcome sight.

The Knicks shot six-of-seven from downtown in the game’s first 12 minutes and made eight of their first nine first-half treys to build a 16-point lead entering the break.

Brunson led the charge scoring 17 of his 26 points through the first two quarters. He shot three-of-four from downtown at the half and finished four-of-seven behind the arc. He shot three-of-five through the first three quarters before re-entering the fourth quarter with 7:49 remaining and his Knicks up 21.

The All-Star guard hit another three with under 4:30 to go in the fourth quarter to put the Knicks up 21 again, an MVP chant-drawing sequence only undone by Josh Hart’s put-back dunk on a missed Brunson step-back three on the ensuing possession.

Brunson’s offensive production was sorely missed by a team operating without its floor general for the past two games.

The Knicks secured a 107-98 victory in Cleveland against the Cavaliers — who were without All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell — despite Brunson needing assistance limping off the court after New York’s opening offensive possession on Sunday. He watched from the sidelines as the Knicks struggled to generate offense against Atlanta on Tuesday.

Yet there was no limp in the star guard’s gait on Friday.

Knicks fans at The Garden on Friday showered their All-Star with deafening cheers when the announcer shouted his name during pregame introductions.

Despite sitting most of the past two games, Brunson didn’t miss a beat in his first game back from injury.

The Knicks scored the first eight points and jumped out to an early 13-3 lead over the Magic, who entered the night up 3-0 in the season series against the Knicks.

If the No. 4 Knicks and No. 5 Magic end the season with identical records, the Magic will hold the tiebreaker because they have the edge in head-to-head matchups.

And if the Knicks and Magic meet each other in the first round? It’s putting the cart before the horse, but the lasting memory in the minds of the Magic will be a blowout loss to a team missing its starting three, four and five.

The Knicks aren’t yet focused on a playoff matchup — though finishing fourth in the East guarantees a second-round date with the league-best Boston Celtics.

The objective in New York — even without OG Anunoby (right elbow surgery) and Julius Randle (dislocated right shoulder) — is to retain its playoff spot in an Eastern Conference dogfight between seeds four through eight.

Entering the arena ahead of tipoff on Friday, Anunoby told The Daily News he is feeling better after February elbow surgery, which coincides with head coach Tom Thibodeau’s status update listing the starting forward as day-to-day.

An Anunoby return would go a long way towards helping the Knicks stay in the top-six in the East. If they finish sixth — or seventh as the first team out of the Play-In — the Knicks will avoid the Celtics until the conference finals.

It’s an important note to keep in mind given only 2.5 games separate No. 4 New York from the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers.

Which means a skid by the Knicks and a winning streak anywhere else could jeopardize New York’s playoff standing and put the Mecca in sudden-death Play-In Tournament territory.

It’s why Knicks fans in attendance at The Garden on Friday cheered Brunson so hard during pregame introductions.

Brunson could have easily opted to sit against the Magic and return against a depleted Philadelphia 76ers team on Sunday.

Ducking smoke, however, isn’t in his DNA — and the shorthanded Knicks aren’t backing down from any challenges, either.

Isaiah Hartenstein, who had two separate bouts of Achilles soreness this season, is also gutting through his injury.

The starting center filling-in for the injured Mitchell Robinson (left ankle surgery) said he would have taken another week or two to rehab had the playoff race not been so tight.

There’s a similar situation brewing out West with only four games separating the fifth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans from Lebron James’ 10th-seed Los Angeles Lakers.

The race in the East is tighter — and until the Knicks get their starting front court back on the floor, they’re compensating for the lack of individual scoring with an uptick in attempted threes.

Thirty-nine against both the Cavs and Warriors. Fifty-two against the Hawks. Thirty-seven a game since both Randle and Anunoby went down, a tick more over their last 10 games, where they rank sixth in all of basketball in threes hoisted.

Thibodeau’s offensive philosophy is for Brunson to get to the paint, force the defense to collapse, then spray out to an open shooter, who will then swing the ball when a defender closes out.

The Knicks made their 13th triple on just 22 attempts at the 2:02 mark of the second quarter, when a four-point play from Miles “Deuce” McBride gave the Knicks a 78-52 lead.

They finished with 16 made threes on 33 attempts, connecting on 48.5% of their treys on the night.

The Knicks can’t dwell on the victory for long, even though it must feel good to get the proverbial monkey off their back and secure a win over a team that’s had their number all season.

The Sixers are up next, twice, and while MVP big man Joel Embiid is out due to a meniscus injury, All-Star guard Tyrese Maxey could spoil New York’s party if he clears concussion protocol in time to suit up for tipoff.


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