Knicks’ Jalen Brunson knows the adjustment to fix his shooting slump: Play better

Knicks’ Jalen Brunson knows the adjustment to fix his shooting slump: Play better

By Oghale Apr25,2024

Jalen Brunson has discovered a foolproof solution to his struggles.

The New York Knicks’ best player hasn’t hit shots in his first two playoff games. His team is winning despite it. But to knock out the Philadelphia 76ers, who the Knicks lead 2-0 in their first-round NBA playoff series, they could use a Brunson turnaround.

Finally, the All-Star point guard has figured out how to make it happen: Play better.

“The easy answer is I need to adjust and I need to be more poised, just understand what they’re doing and just flat-out be better,” Brunson said. “There’s no gimmicks to it. It’s just, ‘Jalen, you need to be better.’ And it’s that plain and simple.”

If he doesn’t, the risk is obvious.

The Knicks may have squeezed out two home victories to begin this series, but both finishes came down to the wire. The 76ers are not dead, especially with the next two games moving to Philadelphia.

The role players have carried New York thus far. But Josh Hart won’t hit four 3s in every game. Miles “Deuce” McBride can’t always catch fire. The centers may not be able to fend off Joel Embiid each night.

That’s when the Knicks need Brunson. They haven’t yet seen the one who lit up the NBA all season.

The Sixers’ game plan angles around making Brunson’s life difficult. Now, they are causing fits for the league’s fourth-leading scorer.

Matchups begin with who is defending the head of the snake. Zones are based on where he might be heading. Despite two close Philadelphia losses over the weekend, the strategy has worked. Brunson is averaging 23.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists so far in the series but is shooting just 16 of 55 (29 percent), which includes an 8 of 29 clunker during New York’s miraculous Game 2 win. He has connected on only 2 of 12 3-pointers.

With Game 3 at 7:30 p.m. (ET) Thursday, the Knicks are counting on a change.

“I don’t think he has to do (anything) different,” Hart said. “He’s shooting shots that he normally makes. You shoot yourself into a slump and you shoot yourself out of a slump.”

Hart is correct. Brunson could shoot himself out of this funk. But to do so, he has to make shots. For now, that’s not so simple.

The 76ers’ blueprint isn’t just working because it’s clever. The players also have executed it as well as coach Nick Nurse could hope.

Kelly Oubre Jr., who has manned Brunson for much of the series, has used his length to disrupt the smaller guard. Kyle Lowry has been a walking pest. Nicolas Batum, another long wing, has stayed down when Brunson leaps for a shot. Tyrese Maxey, normally a more vulnerable defender, has stood his ground when Brunson hopes to square him up.

All the while, eight other eyes lock into Brunson. It’s not just the man defending him who is responsible for stopping him.

The Sixers have encouraged Hart’s defender, often Lowry, to sag closer to the basket. The strategy leaves Hart open on the wing, which has allowed him to get hot. Hart hadn’t made four 3-pointers in a game in 14 months coming into this series. Yet, he’s nailed four in each of the first two games.

The playoffs are about trade-offs. The same tactic that has allowed Hart all these open looks is contributing to Brunson’s struggles.

Hart’s defender is often down low, waiting for Brunson once he arrives in the paint. Embiid is somewhere in the vicinity, too. When Brunson swerves around a pick-and-roll, his primary defender, often Oubre, has trailed behind him. This is a not-so-extreme hybrid version of the Utah Jazz’s approach to James Harden during the 2019 playoffs. To take away basketball’s world’s most dangerous stepback 3-pointer, they guarded him on his backside.

It leaves Brunson without space, without direction.

If he steps back, Oubre is behind him. If he keeps driving, Lowry or Embiid will meet him. If he tries to step through lofting up one of his patented floaters after 47 pivots, one of the three defenders in his area can contest it.

On many of those plays, Brunson has attempted to keep his man behind him, hoping to draw a foul on the way up. Too often, he’s failed to receive the call.

It’s the playoffs, where ticky-tack fouls are not nearly as common.

“Whether it’s the playoffs or not, it’s all about the way the game is being called so you have to adjust,” Brunson said. “Certain things are going and certain things are not. … But for the most part, I just need to lock in on just not trying to not be myself.”

Maybe going straight up, not worrying about drawing contact, could help Brunson sink a few of these floaters. Maybe that inspires more shot making. Sometimes, all an All-Star scorer needs to catch fire is to see the ball go through the net.

Isaiah Hartenstein, the screener in many of those pick-and-rolls, says it’s not just on the shooter, either. Hartenstein believes he can set “harder screens” for Brunson, which could give him more space.

“We all have to do a better job of getting him easier looks. … But it’s Jalen,” Hartenstein said. “He’ll figure it out.”

The Knicks offense has looked its best in this series in the moments it has involved Hartenstein as a screener, either in pick-and-rolls or on dribble handoffs.

When New York turned got rolling in Game 2, it was with Hartenstein leading the way. Head coach Tom Thibodeau called a timeout with 4 minutes, 21 seconds remaining in the second quarter. The Knicks had only 34 points at the time. They came out of the stoppage with one of their go-to plays, which began with a Brunson-Hartenstein pick-and-roll and ended three passes later with a wide-open corner 3.

The Knicks didn’t stop there. The next seven half-court possessions all included Hartenstein setting a screen for Brunson, whether that was in a pick-and-roll, a dribble handoff or one to free the point guard off the ball. New York scored 11 points on those possessions.

The heater spilled into the beginning of the third quarter, as did the theme: Hartenstein set screens everywhere.

“When you get stagnant, it’s really hard to score, especially the way the 76ers and Nick Nurse coaches,” Hartenstein said. “I think they do a good job of not letting easy points come, even after screens. If you don’t have motion before, they’ve been doing a good job of just having that rearview contest. So we just try to move the ball a little bit more and try to work off that, just kinda move the defense a little.”

There are other possible solutions to Brunson’s struggles.

The Knicks could attack Embiid, who is not fully healthy and is moving as such. Embiid, even when at 100 percent, is at his best guarding the paint. The Knicks could force him to cover more ground.

Late in Game 2, their offense bogged down.

Brunson would run a pick-and-roll with whoever Maxey or Tobias Harris was guarding setting the screen for him. The Sixers would concede a switch. Then Brunson would attack his new defender.

But both Maxey and Harris, usually more vulnerable defenders, have fought hard while manning Brunson one-on-one over the first two games. If Brunson is not creating space, the Knicks will search for ways to get him some.

They could run more pick-and-rolls at Embiid and could pull him far out, too, bringing Hartenstein 30 feet from the basket to set ball screens by the logo instead of around the 3-point arc. Doing so would force a hobbled center to cover more ground. So far, many of the Knicks’ pick-and-rolls have been from the wings.

They could run Brunson around more picks off the ball or hope to get him easy buckets in transition. That would mean someone else, such as Hart or Hartenstein or Donte DiVincenzo, making a play for him. It’s not like they haven’t tried that. Just as he did during the regular season, Brunson is ping-ponging around the court after he gives up the basketball. But his motion hasn’t generated nearly as many easy looks.

Fifty-three of the 55 shots Brunson has taken in this series have been off the dribble. One corner 3 was off a pass from OG Anunoby — and Brunson didn’t go right up with a shot either, instead attempting to jab his defender away with a shoulder before rising for the jumper. The other time was when Hart fed him for a fast-break layup.

Every other shot for Brunson, out of 55, has come off the dribble. This is where the Knicks miss Julius Randle, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Randle’s presence removes the playmaking burden from Brunson. It’s no coincidence that the point guard’s spot-up looks have plummeted since Randle got hurt in January.

Trends tend to become more extreme come the playoffs. That’s occurring here.

But the Knicks have one more adjustment they could try, too. Brunson could just replicate what he did during their first 82 games.

He could sink more shots, no matter how difficult: Ones off the dribble, off the catch and everywhere else. This is one of the NBA’s best scorers. Through two games, he’s not scoring.

The answer may be apparent: He could just play better.

“The shots that I’ve been shooting are the shots that I’ve been making all year,” Brunson said. They’ve got to be better and make the shots.”

(Photo of Kelly Oubre Jr., Jalen Brunson and Tyrese Maxey: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

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