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Supporting cast picks up Brunson, N.Y. in opener


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NEW YORK — All season, the New York Knicks have gone as far as Jalen Brunson could carry them.

But when Brunson had an uncharacteristically off night against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, his teammates were there to pick up the slack.

There was Josh Hart hitting a season-high four 3-pointers, including three in the final quarter. There was Brunson’s backup, Deuce McBride, going for 21 points and finishing with a game-best plus-37. And there was Mitchell Robinson coming off the bench to grab seven of New York’s 23 offensive rebounds.

They all played significant parts in New York’s playoff-opening 111-104 victory.

“It’s definitely encouraging,” said Hart, who matched Brunson with a team-high 22 points. “We’ve been on his shoulders all season. And when he struggled, that’s when we had to pick up.

“When your top dog is not playing well — not shooting well, I didn’t want to say not playing well — you need other guys to pick it up for him, and that’s what we did.”

Brunson shot just 8 for 26 from the floor, including 1 of 6 from 3-point range, to go with seven rebounds, seven assists and five turnovers.

But on a night when he and the rest of the Knicks starters finished with negatives in the plus-minus column, it was the contributions from others — and especially the bench — that allowed New York to hold home-court advantage to begin this Battle of Interstate 95.

“They played phenomenal from the start to finish,” Brunson said. “Whenever they were in they made plays. A credit to them for their preparation.”

New York’s starters struggled because Philadelphia generally was able to control the game when Joel Embiid was on the court. In his 37 minutes, Embiid had 29 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists, and Philadelphia outscored the Knicks by 14.

In the other 11 minutes, though, it was a different story. New York won those minutes by a score of 29-8, largely powered by a bench unit featuring Bojan Bogdanovic (13 points), Robinson and McBride at the start of the second and fourth quarters.

“Well, we had another one of those second quarter starts where we didn’t guard anybody,” 76ers coach Nick Nurse said. “We had a hell of a first quarter. We come out to start the second quarter, and it is bang, bang, bang. The quarter is off to a bad start.”

Still, even after those struggles — and with Embiid on the bench dealing with the aftereffects of an injury scare to his knee at the end of the first half — the 76ers still were leading in the fourth quarter. But then Hart, left wide-open from 3-point range, buried three from deep to help New York surge into the lead for good.

“It felt great,” Hart said of making those shots. “The last two games of the regular season, our season series, Nick’s game plan was just to play off me and dare me to make shots. I knew that as soon as they won it [the play-in game]. And I knew it would be the same thing with [Erik Spoelstra] if Miami won it. So that’s something I knew I had to focus on.

“This whole week was just getting up shots, pre-practice, post-practice. Going back at night. Just getting up shots, getting up reps. So I knew it was going to be that way. Open shots. Fortunately I was able to knock them down.”

As a result, New York escaped with a win to open this series in a game that, in many ways, conformed to the conventional wisdom heading into it. New York, one of the league’s best rebounding teams, dominated the glass, gaining a 26-8 edge in second-chance points thanks to those 23 offensive rebounds. The Knicks also had a massive 42-7 advantage in bench scoring, a place Philadelphia routinely has been outgunned at after moving Kelly Oubre Jr. into the starting lineup full-time.

Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey, who had a game-high 33 points, was able to get to the rim at will thanks to his blazing speed, while Embiid, when he was on the court, was able to control the action even amid the issues with his left knee.

But on a night when the one unexpected thing happened — Brunson struggling — the rest of the Knicks ensured that wouldn’t cost them home court.

“We need everyone,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Tonight, it was the bench.

“You gotta win games different ways.”


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