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May 28, 2024

Jalen Brunson channels Willis Reed exactly 54 years later to save Knicks

Jalen Brunson channels Willis Reed exactly 54 years later to save Knicks

The joint was junked. Are you kidding? There was no sadder place in New York City than Madison Square Garden at just before 9:20 Wednesday night.

Depressed? This was 19,812 people standing in line to get on Dr. Jennifer Melfi’s couch. The place had been so electric, so hopeful. The Knicks were up big. Life was good.

Then Jalen Brunson limped off the floor.

Jalen Brunson celebrates during the third quarter of the Knicks’ 130-121 Game 2 win over the Pacers. Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

He stayed off the floor for the final 15 minutes and 32 seconds of the first half. The Knicks were up seven when he left. They were down 10 by halftime.

Knicks fans are used to seeing their team play short. One of the endearing elements of this team is how they almost relish that challenge. This was different. This was Brunson.

This was the season walking off the floor at the Garden.

And then, in an instant, the season walked back onto the floor.

The tunnel through which Willis Reed had trudged exactly 54 years earlier is long gone. But it didn’t take long for the folks in the stands to notice that Brunson was plodding back.

It was a few shouts at first, then a roar, then a wave. It wasn’t louder only because about 8,000 people were undoubtedly flooding the bars and beer lines, getting a head start on Thursday morning’s hangover, drinking to forget.

But the word spread. The faithful abandoned their healing Heinekens and their 7&7s. And suddenly it was like someone had attached paddles to the Garden’s chest, and someone else had shouted “Clear!” The heartbeat was back in sinus rhythm. The night was back. The season was back.

A banged-up Willis Reed walks onto the court for the Knicks’ Game 7 victory over the Lakers in 1970. From the lens of George Kalinsky

“I was gonna give it a go,” Brunson would say.

“He’s a warrior,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “There was no doubt in our minds he’d be back.”

Look, it may be possible that in a week or so we’ll look back at this epic, 130-121 Knicks victory as some kind of last stand. Brunson is still hurt, his right foot a problem now. OG Anunoby, the only reason why there was a game left to save when Brunson stepped back on the floor, has a hamstring issue now. The Knicks are only halfway to the Eastern Conference finals.

That’s for later. That’s for Friday.

For now, savor this one. Savor the way the Garden turned upside-down at the sight of Brunson, and how the player and the building fed off each other, Brunson dropping 24 of his 29 points in the second half. Savor how those Knicks who were left standing held the pinball-machine Pacers offense to 48 points across the final 24 minutes.

The Post’s back page for May 9, 2024.

For now, think like Brunson.

“We found a way,” he said. “That’s it.”

That’s it. Earlier in the day it was revealed Brunson finished fifth in the MVP vote. Nikola Jokic is a worthy winner. But nobody — not Jokic, not Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, not Luka Doncic, nobody — is more valuable to his team than Brunson.

This isn’t an abstract notion either. The Knicks were plus-26 with Brunson. They were minus-15 with him in the locker room.

Jalen Brunson draws a foul on T.J. McConnel during the fourth quarter of the Knicks’ Game 2 win. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Brunson even makes math easy.

“A great leader,” Tom Thibodeau said of his star. Of the rest of his team he added, “I love the way we responded in the third and the way we finished in the fourth.”

Brunson’s teammates looked like a different group once they saw No. 11. They knew. Hell, much later, it was Josh Hart, of course, who gave voice to what so many Knicks fans were saying as he passed Brunson in the dressing room.

“All right, Willis,” Hart said. He’s an elite needler. But he was only partly kidding.

It isn’t just the customers who react viscerally to these moments, after all. So there was Anunoby (28 points, 10-for-19 from the floor) and Josh Hart (19/15/7), there was Donte DiVincenzo (28 points, six 3s) and Isaiah Hartenstein 14/12/8). There was Precious Achiuwa, eight huge points in 28 minutes.

You don’t think they were affected seeing Brunson shake off the pain? And look, it may be sacrilegious to point this out but the night Reed hobbled his way into legend, May 8, 1970, he scored just four points and played 27 minutes. Clyde Frazier allowed the Captain’s inspiration to carry the day by then carrying the Knicks the rest of the way.

This time, Brunson did both. Even he didn’t know if he’d be able to give it a go.

“I’m happy I did,” he said.

“We needed him,” Achiuwa said.

There’s still a lot of ball to be played, unlike ’70. If those Knicks had had to win — goodness — 10 more games to win a title the way these Knicks do … well, they didn’t. It’s going to be a struggle just to find two more to make the Pacers disappear.

For now, the Knicks are allowed to savor one of the great nights they’ve ever had at the Garden, and so are you. It seems like we say that after every game. Only because it’s true.

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