Jalen Brunson returned to “MVP” chants in one of the best wins of this increasingly impressive Knicks campaign.
The point guard, emblematic of the Knicks’ resurgence this season, came off a three-game injury layoff and punished the Nuggets to a 116-110 victory Saturday in front of a pumped-up Madison Square Garden crowd.
Brunson dropped 16 of his 24 points in the first quarter, then buried the Western Conference leaders with an alley-oop pass to Mitchell Robinson with 24 seconds left.
It gave the Knicks (42-31) their biggest season win total in a decade, surpassing their 41-win season in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign. More importantly for the postseason ramifications, the Knicks moved two games ahead of the Nets for fifth in the East.
“I love it,” Josh Hart said. “I think we all enjoy it.”
After a mostly back-and-forth contest, the Knicks trailed by 13 points midway through the third quarter. They then took full control as they outscored the Nuggets 45-26 over the final 18-plus minutes.
“I thought the fourth quarter was our best,” Tom Thibodeau said. “I liked the way we started the game. I didn’t like how we played in the second quarter, but I thought we came back pretty solid in the third quarter. The fourth quarter we were at our best. It was a number of people doing many things well.”
Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic filled the stat sheet in typical fashion with 24 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. But he was outplayed in the final three minutes by Robinson, who added a key steal from Jokic to his game-clinching dunk.
I found it a moving performance after Robinson grumbled about his role on the attack earlier this week. Robinson had just four hits Saturday, but closing out a win against the West’s top team has a way of creating good vibes.
“We’re confident in ourselves,” Robinson said. “We feel like we can beat anybody.”
The Nuggets (47-24) may have been ripe for the picking as they lost for the fifth time in their last six games, but the Knicks also found ways to capitalize with 15 offensive rebounds.
Brunson broke the tie with a shot in the paint with three minutes remaining. About two minutes later, he stepped to the foul line and was overwhelmed by “MVP” chants.
“It’s special,” Brunson said. “I’m happy to win and it’s a great fan base to play with and I appreciate that, but I’ve got a long way to go before that.”
Josh Hart, who was also Brunson’s college teammate, was more expansive about the significance.
“It’s really awesome for me to see, obviously knowing him since 2014, watching his progression, watching him grow just as a friend, it’s amazing because I’ve seen the work behind the scenes,” Hart said. “He knows that, and I have the utmost respect for him, like almost any NBA guy or basketball player in general, because he keeps eating, keeps working.
“I think the biggest thing that boils down to is that he’s about to enter free agency, fortunate enough to sign the biggest contract of his career, which will set up his family for a long time, and we’re both at Villanova and he’s in there at 6 or 7 I beat myself up there. And this is somebody who, like I said, is about to sign an incredible contract, still ready to work, still wanting to work, still hungry for work. For me, man, it’s just amazing to see. I saw the work. And that’s what it does.”