FOX Sports NBA Writer
Midway through their 2021 first-round playoff series with the LA Clippers, the Dallas Mavericks coaches realized they had a problem: They couldn’t count on Jalen Brunson anymore.
Brunson, then a third-year guard, had just come off a successful regular season that had established him as one of the best off-the-bank forces in the league. He could score stacks all over the court, and he made more shots than he missed.
When Mavericks star Luka Doncic needed a breather in the game, Brunson took the reins.
But there’s a reason Brunson fell into the second round of the 2018 draft, despite being the engine for two NCAA championship teams at Villanova and a former National College Player of the Year. He’s only 6-foot-2 – short, by NBA standards. Also, he’s not particularly fast. He doesn’t jump very high either. The fear at the time was that he would be swallowed up by the bigger, faster, and stronger athletes in the NBA.
That’s exactly what happened against the Clippers, a team with long and athletic wings. Brunson had played well in the first three games of the series, but then LA shoved the slippery 6-foot-8 Nicolas Batum on him.
Brunson disappeared. In the last four games of the series, he only scored 18 points. He only played 10 minutes in a Game 7 loss. His struggles, he said a few months later, “sat with me all summer.”
“Their length and their move just ate him up,” recalled a member of the Mavericks’ front office recently. “By the end of the series he was basically unplayable.”
Two years later, Brunson’s performance in the 2021 playoffs marks a turning point that set the table for where he and his current team, the New York Knicks, find themselves: a win from the team’s first win in the playoff series removed since 2013, with Brunson at the helm. They could go ahead with a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday.
“I really wouldn’t trade experience for anything,” he said Tuesday. “Knowing how I played this series and knowing what I could have done, what could have been better, that was always on my mind. And it still is.”
For one thing, Brunson might not be in New York without that poor performance. His fights terrified the Mavericks who declined to offer him an extension this summer that paved the way for him to sign as a free agent with the Knicks last off-season.
More importantly, however, how losing to the Clippers gave Brunson a taste of the tactics he would face for the rest of his career, while revealing where he needed to improve the most. The playoffs have always been full of tall, long, and fast defenders. Brunson realized that if he was to become the player he believed he could be, he had to find ways to navigate these minefields.
This work began in the months following the Clippers series. Brunson worked on his game as usual, but made a point of figuring out how to take advantage of certain angles that present themselves when opponents switch defensive assignments on ball screens.
“That’s one of the things he’s gotten so much better at,” said a former Mavericks assistant coach. “He has this incredible ability to find every angle and lunge as soon as you give it to him, even when he’s up against longer defenders.”
Ironically, that meant Brunson had to slow down. He looked at a loss against the Clippers. He would smack up a rushing floater in the suit on one play and force a step-back jumper on the next. He only hit 45% of his 2-pointers and, according to Synergy Sports trackingHe could only fire two shots from isolation games the entire seven-game series.
In his 114 minutes on the floor, the Mavericks were outscored by 56 points.
Watching Brunson in this year’s playoffs means watching a different player. It’s not that Brunson changed his game — it’s more that he perfected it.
On Tuesday, he mentioned how important it was for him to learn how to stay “calm” and “balanced.” He’s also become a stunning 3-point shooter (41.6% overall and 38% down in dribbling during the regular season, both career highs), forcing defenders to push him and open up all possible lanes. Mix all that with his stunning footwork, head fakes and shoulder shakes and you have a package that will leave defenders looking helpless.
In four games against the Cavaliers, Brunson has averaged 24.3 points. He attacked the Cavs one on one (according to synergy, he was the most efficient isolationist of the postseason; only James Harden has isolated more often and only Spencer Dinwiddie has averaged more points per isolation). He broke them down into pick-and-rolls, alternating between calling his own number and hitting traps, drawing multiple defenders and then hitting teammates under the break.
“He’s had a lot of success fighting greatness,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said on Tuesday. “I know that doesn’t bother him.”
It’s no coincidence that the Knicks have scored 113.6 points per 100 possessions when Brunson is playing, compared to just 75.8 when he’s sitting. Passing the ball to Brunson was their only efficient offense, a far cry from two years ago. Back then he was the weak link of the Mavericks. Now? Brunson is the engine of a Knicks team that has won more playoff games this season than the franchise has in the last nine seasons combined.
“Just going through that experience,” Brunson said of the Clippers series, “was enough.”
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and author of Fueling up to the top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the boldest trial in professional sports history. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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