Playoffs

Jalen Brunson vs. Joel Embiid is living up to the billing as Knicks are one game from advancing

Jalen Brunson vs. Joel Embiid is living up to the billing as Knicks are one game from advancing

PHILADELPHIA — Jalen Brunson shielded his face and pierced a white towel with a scream. The Knicks’ All-Star point guard banged knees with fellow Villanova product Kyle Lowry as the buzzer sounded on Sunday’s third quarter, leaving Brunson hobbling toward his teammates and then back into the locker room.

“I didn’t want to,” Brunson said, but the training staff ushered him under the stands, followed by a trail of New York’s front-office brass, plus his father, Knicks assistant coach Rick Brunson. The next minute and 43 seconds of Game 4 against Philadelphia were full of wanting looks from New York’s bench, down the tunnel through which Brunson had limped, all waiting for the Knicks’ little locomotive to re-emerge. “That’s our engine,” New York forward Josh Hart said, “and we gotta keep finding ways to get him clean looks.”

When the Knicks called timeout with 10:17 left in the game, Brunson returned to New York’s bench. It wasn’t long before Brunson was finding daylight once again, like he did all afternoon, once the 6-foot-2 southpaw trotted back to the scorer’s table and subbed back in with 9:35 to play. He shed some black wrapping from his right knee, and then shed his defender on the very next possession. Brunson managed to nail a leaning one-legged jumper at the right elbow, even with his whole body shifting across the court and falling away from the hoop. He’d continue his onslaught from there. He sank turnaround jumpers and fiddled his way to the rim, freezing defenders and sneaking around double teams, en route to 47 points and 10 assists — breaking Bernard King’s franchise record for playoff points that has stood since the spring of 1984. Behind Brunson’s every bucket, the Knicks scraped out a 97-92 win that pushed their first-round East series lead to 3-1.

The Knicks’ Jalen Brunson goes up for a shot during the second half of Game 4 against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, April 28, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

“We needed it, sh**,” Hart said. “His starting small forward, power forward, whatever the hell I am, ain’t making shots? I was like Shaq at the free-throw line. So we needed it.”

Hart didn’t make a field goal. Donte DiVincenzo started 1-of-7. Yet the Knicks’ supporting cast delivered during that critical opening stretch of the fourth quarter. Just a small slice of a 48-minute pie, the 2:25 when Brunson went missing in action were the only precious heartbeats New York’s lead guard missed of the second half. During Brunson’s only rest before intermission — when Philadelphia outscored New York 9-3 almost immediately following his exit for Tom Thibodeau’s bench — the Knicks’ 34-33 lead disappeared into a 42-37 deficit.

In the fourth, Brunson returned to the floor seeing his one-point advantage at 77-76 somehow hold serve at 82-81. All with Joel Embiid on the court.

The same dilemma, see, has plagued the Sixers’ for years, as Philadelphia’s postseason leads have dwindled every moment Embiid watches his team’s bench units attempt the sport without him. And so he played the entire first quarter of this Game 4, powering his Sixers to a 27-17 advantage. He has looked much more his full self lately after scoring 50 in Game 3, not the diminished version of the reigning MVP since returning from a torn meniscus and now battling a case of Bell’s palsy.

But when Embiid returned four minutes into the second frame, he was handed back a 29-25 edge, thanks to an 8-2 Knicks run — led, of course, by Brunson.

So Embiid never left the court in the fourth. Embiid was out there, all 7 feet, 280 pounds and hulking knee brace, ready to tilt the scale in his favor while Brunson was on the mend. “You know, your competitive nature is always gonna take over,” Embiid said. “And I felt like, not that we … you know … they’ve always come back in games this series.” That stretch, where he and Philadelphia could not capitalize while Brunson was out, may have squandered the game. They could not capitalize the entire final stretch.

Two days after Embiid scored from the top of the key and both elbows and lumbered around a pin-down screen from Lowry in the corners, the Sixers first found great difficulty feeding Embiid on his block of choice, pushing the same rock up the same hill of postseason’s past. Then the Sixers rarely managed to capitalize on his double teams. Maybe Embiid saw his one-on-one matchup with the 6-foot-7 OG Anunoby as just too advantageous not to attack. But that was an assignment that Thibodeau’s staff had prepared before this series began. With Mitchell Robinson sidelined with an ankle injury and Isaiah Hartenstein saddled with five fouls, Thibodeau asked Anunoby if he wanted to man the giant who’d just scored 50 points Thursday. “And look, Embiid is a load,” Thibodeau said. “You’re not guarding him individually. You gotta guard him with your team. We understand that.”

The Knicks swarmed Embiid on each of his touches, sending extra defenders from different places at different times. Reserve center Precious Achiuwa swatted Embiid’s heave from the left wing into the stands. Embiid was 0-for-5 from the floor during the fourth. “Embiid’s a handful,” Brunson said. “So for us to go out there and stick together, especially during crunch time, it’s a pretty remarkable feat.”

Brunson requires that much attention in his own right, with the Sixers almost always draping on him a lengthy forward like Kelly Oubre Jr. or Nicolas Batum or Tobias Harris before his driving lanes. Philadelphia’s guards and wings have been switching most off-ball screens New York sets to free him. That takes far more scurrying and bustle for Brunson to shake loose, compared to Embiid parking his backside into his defender and calling for the ball, but Brunson generated plenty of healthy chances inside and out, finishing through contact on multiple closing possessions. If there’s any doubt that styles make fights, the diverging makeups of these two superstars has produced four slugfests, while much of the NBA postseason has presented uncompetitive blowouts.

They tangled quite literally with just over a minute remaining in the third, Brunson keeping his dribble alive long enough down the baseline to try and scoop a reverse behind the iron. Yet Embiid was there to smack any hope away and both crashed hard onto the wood like two heavyweights staving off a knockout. They stare across the aisle on nearly every pick-and-roll. Whether it’s Hartenstein or Achiuwa or sometimes Anunoby, Embiid waits in drop coverage for Brunson to scamper around his trusty ball screens. Whether they lock eyes or soul or what, only they know, but Brunson is certainly scanning the 7-foot behemoth like a puzzle that can only be solved with patience. What pieces he’s already fit together, Brunson declined to divulge.

“I’m exploring a lot. I’m exploring a lot,” Brunson said. “I see a lot, and just reading what happens, what he does and figure something out while I’m there.” Brunson also has to weigh what’s going on behind his braided head, while his eyes are locked onto Embiid. Brunson has always pinned defenders on his hip once he’s gained a step, but he’s seemed even more deliberate with that tactic to combat all of the Sixers’ length. “They’re doing a great job of pursuing. So I can’t just forget about the guy who’s guarding the screen,” Brunson said. “Usually I do, but they’ve done a great job all series just pursuing the ball. While I can’t think that, I’m just figuring out where I can be effective, just keep myself on balance, keep them off balance.”

Brunson has all of Philadelphia teetering on the edge of elimination. Tuesday’s Game 5 returns to Madison Square Garden, where Brunson struggled mightily despite New York going 2-0 against the Sixers. That left Knicks staffers optimistic about their chances heading south to Philly, having survived two contests and Brunson still hadn’t gone off. “I think he was just … um, I don’t want to say forcing it. I think he was just … he wasn’t himself,” Hart said. “He missed some shots he normally makes. And he was like, ‘I gotta get going.’" And they feel it’s only a matter of time before he gets it going back home.

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