Jalen Brunson and the ruthless old-man game driving the Knicks' playoff run

LARRY DAVID said it best.

The beloved actor and writer, best known for “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” made an appearance on “The Rich Eisen Show” last month, during which he talked about his beloved New York Knicks and their best player, point guard Jalen Brunson. “He’s tremendous. He doesn’t seem athletic in a way, but then he …”

David, 76, then stood up from this seat, preparing to replicate the move. ” … He slithers in! And then he kind of does that [fadeaway] thing! Where his back is going backwards!”

As David sat back down, Eisen couldn’t contain his laughter after the septuagenarian did a full-on leg kick to imitate Brunson’s form.

But here’s the thing: David isn’t wrong. There is something about Brunson’s game, and what makes it so unusual, yet so accessible. If the undersized, slight-of-frame Stephen Curry has given the younger generation something to aspire to with his otherworldly shooting range, Brunson, 27, may be inspiring people of all ages to perfect their old-man game — one that depends far less on athleticism and more on impeccable footwork, strength and trickery.

“Man, it’s so great to be on the other side of [his footwork] now,” Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo, a teammate of Brunson’s at Villanova, told ESPN. “We played one-on-one so many times over the years to where I feel like I know exactly what he’s gonna do. Honestly, a lot of defenders feel that way. But he’s so crafty that they can’t tell when he’s gonna shoot, when he’s gonna pass, or when he’s gonna use a step-through.

“He knows he’s not the most athletic, so he outsmarts and out-footworks people to get where he wants to go.”

That precision is not just highly unpredictable and effective, though — it’s also the engine that drives a Knicks offense that ranked fifth over the final six weeks of the regular season without two-time All-NBA forward Julius Randle — and fourth through the first two weeks of the playoffs.

KENTAVIOUS CALDWELL-POPE did almost everything right.

The two-time NBA champion, a proud stopper who entered the 2023-2024 season saying that First Team All-Defense was among his individual goals this season, wasn’t duped by the perimeter screen set by Knicks center Jericho Sims.

The high-IQ wing guessed correctly that Brunson would reject the screen, as he often does. Caldwell-Pope then stayed with Brunson step for step as the guard backed him into the paint. And he even managed to stay relatively grounded on the All-Star’s first fake to the left.

But Caldwell-Pope flailed on the fourth action: Brunson up-faked before taking a beautiful step-through — a nasty 1-2 combo — before drawing contact across the arm as his floater lofted above the outstretched arm of Nikola Jokic and found the bottom of the net as the referee’s whistle blew.

The Madison Square Garden crowd erupted.

And the defending champion Nuggets, down by 25 points after that failed defensive sequence, looked utterly confused. Between guard Jamal Murray raising his hands in frustration and forward Aaron Gordon putting his hands on his hips in exasperation, Denver seemed to be asking a question countless other teams have had this season: How do we stop this freaking guy?

Brunson managed to shoot a blistering 7-for-8 from 2-point range that night against the Nuggets. The showing was far from an anomaly.

“When you have to guard a player on the catch, and then you have to guard him again when they dribble, and you have to guard him again when he picks up his dribble? That’s a lot of opportunities for a defender to make a mistake. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it before,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder told ESPN, a reference to the 2022 playoff series in which Brunson — playing without injured Dallas Mavericks teammate Luka Doncic for the first three games — torched Snyder and the Jazz for 24 points in Game 1, 41 in Game 2 and 31 in Game 3. Dallas won the series in six.

Consider, too, Game 4 of the Knicks’ first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. Wing defender Tobias Harris also did just about everything right.

Twice in the third quarter Sunday, he took on the task of guarding Brunson one-on-one on the left wing. The first time, the New York star crossed the ball over between his legs three times — left, right, then left again — before going up for a shot. Or, at least to Harris, what certainly looked like one. Instead, Brunson used a shot fake to get Harris in the air from 16 feet out, then leaned into him and flung up a jumper as the whistle blew to signal a foul. As Harris tried desperately to land without making contact, it was already too late: Brunson’s shot was good, and he’d add the free throw.

Two minutes later, Brunson called his own number against Harris from the same spot on the floor. This time, he dribbled between his legs four times in an effort to rock Harris to sleep. He then accelerated to his left toward the midpost, before being cut off and pulling the ball back out to reset. Or, at least to Harris, what looked like a reset. Instead, Brunson charged back downhill to his left just as Harris was beginning to exhale, thinking the job was done — or at least paused.

Only it wasn’t. Instead, Brunson slithered his way to the basket for a scoop layup off the glass. By day’s end, he’d compiled 47 points — a Knicks playoff record — and 10 assists to take New York to a 3-1 series lead over the Sixers. Brunson managed to log the historic performance while just turning the ball over a single time.

And that’s another thing: Brunson’s largely mistake-free showing Sunday was par for the course this season. He posted a career-high 32.5% usage rate, but also had a career-low 9.1% turnover rate, even as he played through far more contact. Defenses blitzed Brunson as the pick-and-roll ball handler 36% more than they did a year ago, per Second Spectrum.

Despite possessing the ball for an NBA-high 662 minutes this season, and using highly intricate footwork countless times per game, Brunson was called for a total of four traveling violations all year. Four. Tied for the fewest for any All-Star guard or wing.

BRUNSON’S STAR TURN in New York is years in the making.

His father, Rick Brunson, was a member of the Knicks back in 1999, the last time the team reached the NBA Finals. He occasionally brought a 5-year-old Jalen into the team’s locker room, and the youngster used it as an opportunity to show the players that he’d been studying their games.

“Everyone would just crack up. He had their footwork down — jab steps, everything,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, who was a New York assistant in the late 1990s, said last year in recalling his first time meeting Jalen.

“[We’d tell him] ‘Do Allan Houston,’ boom, boom, boom. ‘Do Latrell Sprewell,’ boom, boom, boom. … He was in the gym all the time, and he was a sponge.” Yet for all the old-man tendencies Brunson uses as a player, he also makes frequent use of what closely resembles a children’s game. It appears to be the world’s most annoying game of duck, duck, goose.

Defenders chase him around the court when he’s playing off the ball. And even when he has it on the perimeter, then gives it up to one of his big men, it’s often just to relocate before getting the ball back in a better position to attack.

“It’s like he’s playing football,” Golden State guard Moses Moody told ESPN. “He’s a receiver trying to get open.”

And he bypasses help if and when it comes — by design. At nearly 17%, Brunson rejects screens at by far the NBA’s highest rate, according to Second Spectrum, confusing defenders who are expecting him to make use of the blockade. Brunson plays off of two feet, his herky-jerky style and off-beat rhythm forming perhaps the most unpredictable offensive player in basketball.

“We’ve got a ton of players in the league who are really athletic and have great wingspans and all that stuff. But if I can be deceptive and do the things that I do, I can create an advantage,” Brunson told ESPN. “And I definitely work on [my footwork] a lot.”

The evidence would suggest it’s working. Opposing players rarely block his shots, despite his height. Some of that is his underappreciated strength. “That first time he bumps into you with that shoulder, you’re like, ‘Damn, OK!’ ” Warriors guard Gary Payton II told ESPN.

Brunson took an NBA-high 330 floaters this season, 124 more than any other player. Just 18, or a little over 5% of them, were blocked. Just 6-7 Kawhi Leonard, 6-9 Bam Adebayo, 6-11 Kevin Durant, 6-10 Nikola Vucevic and Jokic, the two-time MVP who stands 6-11 — have been blocked less frequently on a percentage basis than Brunson, according to data site PBP Stats.

He led all NBA guards with 276 buckets in the paint. And his 86 and-1 plays during the regular season were second most in the league, trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose hulking paint presence is often compared to Shaquille O’Neal’s.

“When you look at the rearview mirror and it says, ‘Objects are closer than they appear,’ that’s the kind of strength he has and the way he plays,” Warriors star Draymond Green, a former Defensive Player of the Year, told ESPN. “You may look at him like, ‘Ah, he’s only 6-2 or however tall he is.’ But he plays so much bigger than that. He’s special, but it’s not surprising.”

Said DiVincenzo: “Playing against size doesn’t bother him. In college, there was no defensive three seconds rule, so bigger guys could just stand there and clog the paint. … To be able to do it now, he’s got more space to go to work against defenses.”

Giving Brunson more of anything — be it space, or a screen he’ll likely reject anyway — at this point is normally a winning proposition for him. He’s created a handful of nearly unstoppable old-school advantages for himself.

“I’ve found ways to be comfortable while being uncomfortable,” Brunson said. “My game is a little unorthodox and a little different than most people’s. But I work on finding ways to keep the defense off balance while remaining on balance myself.”

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