NEW YORK — Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau beamed with pride as he described Jalen Brunson‘s 38-point, nine-rebound, seven-assist performance in a must-win 112-103 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Wednesday night.
As eye-popping as the numbers were for the guard who has quickly become one of Thibodeau’s favorite players in his first season with the Knicks, the stat that really made Thibodeau gush was the 48 in the minutes column. Not only did Brunson lead his team offensively, he played every second of the game to make sure the Knicks forced a Game 6 Friday night in Miami.
“What can you say about the guy?” Thibodeau said. “He’s just incredible, all-around player. Great leader, great toughness. Mental toughness, physical toughness, ability to think on his feet, ability to lead, ability to connect with people, bring the best out of people. That’s what makes him special. And it’s play after play.”
Brunson was relentless throughout Wednesday’s game — and the Knicks needed every bit of it. He set the tone for the rest of the group to follow and continued making big buckets down the stretch for a team that almost blew a 19-point lead. After getting out-worked and out-hustled in Games 3 and 4, the Knicks and Brunson seemingly left everything they had on the Madison Square Garden floor.
“Just tried to do everything I could to win,” Brunson said matter-of-factly. “We did that. Now it’s onto Game 6.”
While Brunson was nonchalant about his performance, his teammates and coach were more than happy to sing his praises after a night that won’t soon be forgotten in Knicks lore.
“That’s JB,” Knicks All-Star forward Julius Randle said. “That’s what he’s been doing all year. Ultimately, at the core of who he is, he’s a competitor and he wants to win. So he left it all out there tonight. He carried us in a big way.”
Brunson went toe-to-toe at times with Heat guard Kyle Lowry, who, like Brunson, went to Villanova. Lowry called Brunson a “great talent” following the game.
“That man has played 45 mins and 48 mins the last couple games,” Lowry said. “You got to give him credit for just being aggressive and continuing to attack.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s answer to Brunson and Quentin Grimes playing 48 minutes in the second half was to leave Jimmy Butler on the floor for the duration of the second half. Butler normally sits at the start of the fourth quarter, but Spoelstra wanted to capitalize on the momentum the Heat had at the time.
“I did have an inclination to maybe get him out at some point,” Spoelstra said, “but I think that fourth quarter was probably the best quarter of the game both ways, and to try and flip the lead and see if that momentum would change, but we were never able to do that.”
Butler said if Spoelstra needs him to do more, he’s more than up to the challenge.
“I’m never surprised with anything come playoff basketball time,” Butler said. “Your best is needed for all 48 minutes and more if you’re going into overtime. If Spo tells me to play 48 minutes, I will be suited and booted and ready to do that and we’ll win.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the last time Thibodeau played someone for an entire playoff game, it was Butler in 2014, when both were in Chicago. Brunson and Grimes also became the first Knicks duo to play an entire playoff game since Walt Frazier and Jerry Lucas did it in 1972.
Brunson said he never spoke to Thibodeau about the possibility of playing all 48 minutes, but Thibodeau said Brunson understood heading into the game that it was a possibility.
Thibodeau said if the situation called for it again in Game 6, he wouldn’t hesitate to use both players the same way. Thibodeau has always believed Brunson was ready for this moment and loves the fact he has found another player who shares the same basketball philosophy that he does — “the magic is in the work.”
“I’ve never seen anyone work the way he does,” Thibodeau said of Brunson. “And he does it in front of everyone, he does it in our gym, does it all summer long, he does it at a game speed. He never has to adjust in a game because of the way he prepares himself. He conditions himself to play big minutes. Just a tremendous leader.”
ESPN’s Andrew Lopez contributed to this report.