Jalen Brunson returned to ‘MVP’ chants in one of the best victories of this increasingly impressive Knicks campaign.
The point guard, emblematic of the Knicks’ resurgence this season, emerged from a three-game injury absence and punished the Nuggets on the bookends of a 116-110 victory Saturday in front of a pumped 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 remaining.
It secured the Knicks (42-31) their highest season win total in a decade, surpassing the 41 victories during the shortened pandemic campaign of 2020-21. More important to postseason ramifications, the Knicks moved two games ahead of the Nets for fifth in the East.
“I’m enjoying it,” Josh Hart said. “I think we’re all enjoying it.”
After a largely back-and-forth contest, the Knicks trailed by 13 points midway through the third quarter. Then they took full control while outscoring 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 the way we played in the second quarter, but I thought we came back in the third quarter pretty solid. Fourth quarter we were at our best. It was a number of people doing a lot of things well.”
Nikola Jokic, the two-time MVP, filled the stat sheet per usual with 24 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. But he was outplayed in the final three minutes by Robinson, who added a pivotal steal off Jokic to his game-sealing dunk.
It felt like a poignant performance after Robinson grumped about his role on offense earlier this week. Robinson took just four shots 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) might’ve been ripe for picking while losing for the fifth time in their last six games, but the Knicks also found ways to take advantage by grabbing 15 offensive rebounds.
Brunson broke a tie with a shot in the paint with three minutes remaining. About two minutes later, he stepped to the foul line and was showered with ‘MVP’ chants.
“It’s special,” Brunson said. “I’m just happy we won and it’s a great fanbase to play in front of and I appreciate it but got a long way to go before that.”
Josh Hart, who was also teammates with Brunson in college, was more expansive on significance.
“It’s really dope for me to see obviously, knowing him since 2014, watching his progression, watching him grow just as a friend, it’s amazing cause I’ve seen the work behind the scenes,” Hart said. “And he knows this and I have the most respect for him as almost any NBA guy or basketball player in general because he continues to grind, continues to work.
“I think the biggest thing that sums that up is he’s about to go into free agency, fortunate enough to be signing the biggest contract of his career that’s gonna set his family up for a long time and we’re both at Villanova and he’s in there at 6 or 7 a.m. He beat me there. And this is someone who like I said, about to sign an unbelievable contract, still ready to work, still wanting to work, still hungry to work. For me, man, it’s just amazing to see. I’ve seen the work. And that’s what he does.”