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Mike Lupica: Knicks need more than just Jalen Brunson for a deep playoff run



Jalen Brunson, as valuable a player as there is in pro basketball this season, any team and anywhere, dropped an old Yankee number on the Spurs Friday night. He dropped 61 on them, one less than the Knicks record set by Carmelo Anthony ten years ago, one more than Bernard King’s 60. And if a 3-pointer had fallen at the very end of overtime, it would have been 64 and the Knicks would have won the game. The shot didn’t fall. Brunson couldn’t do it alone, the way he couldn’t do that in the playoffs last season.

Brunson is a tough kid, on the toughest Knicks team in almost a quarter-century exactly, the aging and wounded team that somehow still managed to make the Eastern Conference finals against the Pacers. Patrick Ewing, in his last Knicks season, on his last legs, played only 62 games that year and Marcus Camby played 59, for a team that included Jalen Brunson’s dad, Rick, and an assistant coach named Tom Thibodeau.

But that Knicks team grinded its way to 50 regular season wins, the way this Knicks team is trying to do the same. It finished with the third-most wins in the Eastern Conference, the way this Knicks team still can. The 1999-00 Knicks overcame a lot. These Knicks, led by Rick Brunson’s kid, have overcome more.

Now we will see if, and when, they can get Julius Randle back and OG Anunoby, see if — and when — the band is back together if they can do what Jeff Van Gundy’s Knicks did, and make it to the conference finals for the first time since Jeff was coach. They have beaten everybody in their conference except the Celtics. Even with all the injuries, they came out of Friday night’s loss, and after that rousing, Brunson-led second half comeback, just two games behind the second-place Bucks, and with the same number of losses as the third-place Cavs.

Of course, just because of the way the season has gone, Mitchell Robinson, who just got back in the game, seemed to be limping in overtime, after Isaiah Hartenstein fell hard on his right hand after a flagrant foul. That kind of year. Still the Knicks kept coming until Brunson’s last 3-pointer was just a little bit too strong, despite a performance to there as strong as any Knick guard has ever produced in the team’s history.

He still couldn’t do it alone, the way he couldn’t do it alone against the Heat in the playoffs with Randle slowed by injury and the series so often looked like Jalen Brunson against the world. It is hard for a player his size to carry a team all the way through the playoffs. Steph Curry is 6-2, same as Brunson is, but as admirable as these Knicks are, and as hard as they play, there was a lot more talent in the room when Curry’s Warriors were winning all those titles. Brunson needs all the help he can get if these Knicks are going to make it back to the conference finals, at the end of what has been this crazy and entertaining season.

Donte DiVincenzo has been even more a player than the Knicks thought they were getting. Bojan Bogdanovich has been less. Miles McBride, who had a chance to make a winning jumper at the end of regulation in San Antonio, has given them more than they could have expected. But Randle’s bum shoulder has kept him on the bench for two months. Anunoby, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, was still a DNP in San Antonio with “right elbow management.”

When Friday night’s game was over Brunson was asked when he might take a moment to process that he was now one of only three Knicks to ever score 60 or more points in a game.

“When I retire,” Brunson said.

He did everything he could do. He has done everything to carry this team that he possibly can. We know what the Knicks look like when he is at his best, because he has been at his best a lot. We have seen what these Knicks look like when the sides are even, and even when they’re not. And if the sides are somehow even when the playoffs start after nine more regular season games, the Knicks will take their chances against anybody in the East.

They have given their fans more of a season than anybody could have expected. They still have a shot at winning 50 if they can manage to win six games, or more, the rest of the way. They do keep coming. Victor Wembanyama, a thrilling talent, went for 40 points and 20 rebounds on Friday night, and his team was ahead of the Knicks by 21 at one point. The Knicks kept coming. Career night for Wembanyama, who got the calls on a night when Brunson didn’t. Career night for Brunson. A March Madness of a game in San Antonio.

Knicks still lost. And lost some ground in the standings. Two games behind the Bucks. Half-game behind the Cavs. If they stay where they are, they will play the 4 vs. 5 first-round series against the Magic. They will be back to that. But they still have time to get all the way to No. 2. If Brunson’s shot against the Spurs had fallen, they would have been ahead of the Cavs and just a game behind the Bucks.

It really has been some season, with the playoffs coming up fast. With all their players, there is no reason for them to be scared off by anybody in the Eastern Conference except the Celtics, and you know how much Knicks fans would love an old-school, Knicks-Celtics playoff matchup.

Toughest Knicks team in a long time. They’ll need more than that next month. And more than just Jalen Brunson.

OHTANI HAS SOME EXPLAINING TO DO, HOPKINS IS IN THE WRONG & CREDIT TREVINO FOR THE TAG …

We’re still supposed to believe that Shohei Ohtani was blindsided by what his former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, told the Dodgers in Seoul about his gambling debts and how — this was the original version of things, remember — Ohtani was just helping a brother out by covering those debts.

But then in the next twenty-four hours, Ohtani had turned into Capt. Renault in “Casablanca,” and was shocked, shocked to discover gambling was going on with a guy who we were told really was closer to the Big Oh than a brother.

But the holes in this story remain, the way a lot of questions do.

Like this question, for example:

How in the world could Ohtani get blindsided by Mizuhara’s story when his own crisis manager (or perhaps crisis creator) had hand-delivered the interpreter to ESPN for conversations that ended up lasting more than an hour-and-a-half?

And it sure is a good thing Ohtani didn’t take questions after reading his statement at Dodger Stadium the other day, so no one could ask a simple one like this:

You do have an accountant, right, someone who might have flagged all those $500,000 wire transfers?

Do I think Mizuhara was betting with a bookie in Ohtani’s behalf?

I do not.

But I also didn’t think I’d ever find out that Phil Mickelson had lost enough money gambling on sports to have financed an invasion of Mexico.

Now, neither the Dodgers or Ohtani’s people will even tell us to whom — if anybody — they have reported this egregious theft.

This story, in Yogi’s words, ain’t over ‘till it’s over.

I don’t care whether that was a legal slide from Rhys Hopkins or not on Jeff McNeil on Friday afternoon.

And whether Hopkins kept contact with second base or not.

That slide was late, Hopkins was past the bag, and it looked like he did what he did intentionally.

If this guy thinks that was “playing the right way,” he needs to go back and re-read the manual.

I’m starting to think that I have a better shot at playing for the Warriors next season than Draymond Green does.

If Victor Wembanyama is blessed with good health, he is going to reimagine the center position in the NBA, with his height and grace and talent.

Every single year they sell Cinderella with all the other March Madness, and then most years the tournament usually works its way down to great, big state schools and Duke.

And Villanova, when Jay Wright was still coaching Villanova.

By the way?

The tournament still gives us too many games in the 50s like we got from Duke and Houston on Friday night.

Like, the 1950s.

Spoiler alert?

The Masters is a tradition unlike any other.

It is starting to look as if the only way to pitch to the top of the Dodgers’ order — Mookie Betts and Ohtani and Freddie Freeman — is under an assumed name.

What in the world was Gary Pettis, the Astros’ fine third base coach, doing sending Mauricio Dubon with one out in the 9th on Friday and Alex Bregman on-deck.

Juan Soto didn’t make a great throw on that play.

But he did get a great jump.

In the end, though, the great play was Jose Trevino’s in getting Dubon with that sweep tag.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Giants need to draft a quarterback.

“All this nonsense about a heated argument between Coach Saleh and me at the league meeting is absolutely false,” Woody Johnson wrote on X the other day. “It is yet another irresponsible report from NFL Network. Please disregard.”

Somebody remind Woody that it’s a hardball league, and he needs to wear a helmet.

Here’s hoping that Scott Boras doesn’t screw things up for Pete Alonso the way he did with Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery and J.D. Martinez.

And that the Polar Bear keeps in mind that he doesn’t work for Scotty, and that it’s the other way around.

Forty-one years after Jimmy V, another North Carolina State story got a little bigger Friday night, didn’t it?

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