NEW YORK — In the midst of the wild celebration breaking out as Josh Hart stepped to the free throw line with four seconds remaining, Jalen Brunson stood alone at the other end of the court, bent over under the basket with both hands on his knees. On a night when there were a lot of individual performances by New York Knicks players to acknowledge, it was the clutch play of Brunson in the second half that perhaps saved the team’s season.
Brunson hit the biggest shot of the night, a tie-breaking 3-pointer with just over four minutes left that helped lift the Knicks to a 111-105 win over the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The series, now even at 1-1, shifts to South Florida for Game 3 on Saturday.
The final tally for Brunson: 30 points, 23 in the second half as he proved again why he was the most impactful free agent in the NBA this past season.
“That’s who he is,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “Great leader. Great toughness. Never disappoint you.”
Brunson, oddly enough, disappointed himself in Sunday’s 108-101 Game 1 loss to the Heat at Madison Square Garden, describing his long-range inaccuracy (he missed all seven of his 3-point attempts) as “horrific.”
His first half on Tuesday was just slightly less horrific (Brunson missed five of his six shots). While Brunson struggled, the Heat — minus forward Jimmy Butler — held a halftime lead and threatened to suck the energy out of a Madison Square Garden crowd that expected an easy win.
Credit solid first halves from forward RJ Barrett, who finished with 24 points, and Julius Randle (25 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists) to keep the game close on a night where Miami’s ball movement, 3-point shooting and zone defense kept the Knicks frustrated for three quarters.
Brunson, over the course of his shooting struggles, received encouragement.
“If you’re open, shoot,” Thibodeau said when asked about Brunson’s slow start. “We went through an entire regular season, we know you can shoot … it’s not going to be a problem.”
Brunson fired away from long range and found a rhythm that helped the Knicks keep a game close that Miami seemed on the verge of stealing.
Brunson’s 3-pointer that gave the Knicks the lead for good with 4:07 left led to a wild reaction from former NBA guard John Starks and free agent Carmelo Anthony, who were seated in the front row along the baseline near the Miami bench.
Anthony was the last Knicks player to drop 30 points in a playoff game in 2013. Following Brunson’s postgame interview with TNT, he walked over to Anthony and shared a long embrace with the future Hall of Famer who reached the All-Star Game in each of his seven seasons in New York.
“It’s always good when you see a legend like that tonight,” Brunson said. “Just to see all the guys who wore the Knicks jersey in the past come back, it’s always special.”
Getting those guys who wore the Knicks jersey back is not a given. Players such as Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tim Thomas, Patrick Ewing and Kurt Thomas — among the former Knicks attending games at Madison Square Garden this week — were scarce a year ago when the Knicks finished eight games below .500 and missed the playoffs.
The atmosphere has changed for a top-market team whose fan base is hungry for a winner. And this Knicks team is easy to like.
Randle, released of the burden of carrying the team alone, had playoff career highs in points and assists (25 and eight) in Game 2 on the strength of his ability to find the open man out of double teams.
Barrett, a more consistent player this season, got off to the hot start and scored 24 points despite only making two baskets in the second half (he sat the last seven minutes).
Hart, who played those final seven minutes in place of Barrett, finished with a near triple-double (14 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists) as the respect for the intangibles he provides grows following the team’s trade for him in February.
“That’s just who he is,” Brunson said of Hart, his college teammate for two seasons at Villanova. “It’s in his DNA, just making the right play at the right time.”
That same description can be used for Brunson, who possesses the confidence and court awareness necessary for a leader.
“Jalen had a great game,” Miami guard Kyle Lowry said after the game. “But Jalen’s literally an All-NBA-type player. He changes their team around, he’s unbelievably good.”
The change that Brunson has helped bring to the Knicks has been reflected in the crowds that have showed up for this year’s playoff run. Mainstays comedian Chris Rock, filmmaker Spike Lee and comedian Tracy Morgan were there Tuesday in their Knicks gear and shared the celebrity spotlight this week with New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers, tennis great Roger Federer, comedian Trevor Noah and business executive Martha Stewart.
That crowd has fully embraced Brunson who helped hold off the Heat in a game on Tuesday that might have saved the Knicks’ season.
“The best place to play basketball, the best place to do anything,” Brunson said of New York. “This arena, this stage, this energy is unmatched. The fact that I get to call this place home is an unbelievable feeling.”