Knicks vs. Pacers: Jalen Brunson has put New York on his back, but how long can he carry this load?

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In their second-round playoff series against Jalen Brunson’s New York Knicks, the Indiana Pacers will have to “lock into everything defensively to stop him,” forward Obi Toppin said Saturday in Indiana. A reporter asked if it would be similar to the challenge that Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard presented in the first round. 

“Nah,” said Toppin, who was traded from the Knicks to the Pacers last July. “JB got the ball in his hands more than Lillard, and he plays 48 minutes, so we’re prepared for that.”

Toppin was only slightly exaggerating. Brunson played an average of 43.8 minutes in the first round, trailing only teammate Josh Hart (46.1) and opponent Tyrese Maxey (44.6). According to’s tracking data, he had the ball in his hands for 11.1 minutes per game, which is: 

  • Almost twice as much as Lillard (5.7) did in the first round
  • No. 1 in the league by a good margin (Luka Doncic, Brunson’s former teammate, had possession of the ball for 9.3 minutes per game, and only three other players — Maxey, Anthony Edwards and James Harden — averaged more than seven minutes)
  • Essentially half of New York’s total time of possession, including the minutes in which he was on the bench.

You likely remember Brunson making a nasty, left-to-right floater over Joel Embiid during Game 4 against the Philadelphia 76ers. It was a remarkable shot because of the degree of difficulty and the fact that Brunson had just returned to the court after banging knees with Kyle Lowry at the end of the previous quarter. But do you remember that he dribbled away the entire 24-second shot clock before he put it up?

In that game, Brunson scored 47 points, seven more than the rest of the Knicks, and had a usage rate of 39 percent. In the series he had a usage rate of 35.6 percent overall and 38.6 percent in the fourth quarter (a number that understates his late-game ball dominance, as it doesn’t include overtime of Game 5, in which he had an 83.3 percent usage rate — yes, seriously, 83.3 — and accounted for eight of his team’s 10 shot attempts). For context, Allen Iverson had a usage rate of 34.9 percent in his 2001 MVP season (and 35.8 percent in that year’s playoffs).

“He has the ball in his hands for 20 seconds out of the 24[-second] shot clock,” Sixers wing Kelly Oubre Jr., who spent much of the series defending Brunson, said the day before that 47-point eruption. “He passes the ball, gets it right back. He puts up probably the most shots on his team, as he should. But at the end of the day he’s being used a lot. He’s being used to to go play 48 minutes and have 40 points. He has to.”

Oubre said it was his job to “stay in front of him, stay disciplined, not go for his fakes.” Now that job will fall to several Pacers. Andrew Nembhard will be one of them, according to  coach Rick Carlisle, who spent three seasons with Brunson in Dallas and told Dan Patrick that he’s “very happy for him, very proud of him and very much not looking forward to coaching against him.” Aaron Nesmith will likely be another.

Indiana does not have Philadelphia’s size and length on the wing, but it has Myles Turner patrolling the paint and it is well aware of how Brunson-dependent the Knicks’ offense has become.

“They have their main guy that goes out there and pretty much does everything for ’em,” Turner told reporters. As Monday’s series opener approaches, maybe the big question shouldn’t be what the Pacers can do to stop him, but whether or not he can keep playing his way without wearing down. 

In the first round, Brunson was second to only Hart in both per-game and total distance traveled, per’s tracking data. If Brunson himself is concerned about his workload, though, he is not showing it. “All out, no time to pace yourself anymore,” he said after logging 51 minutes in Game 5. In terms of his share of the offense, the Sixers series was nothing new — in the final month of the regular season, Brunson averaged 35.1 points and 9.7 minutes of ball possession per game with a 36.7 percent usage rate, all of which ranked No. 1 in the league.

The Knicks surely won’t complain if Brunson continues to score 40-plus points on good efficiency, as he has now done in three consecutive games. It did not seem like an accident, though, that forward OG Anunoby got more aggressive as a scorer as the Philadelphia series went on. Ever since Julius Randle’s shoulder injury in January, New York has had to scrounge points however it can. The Knicks’ simplest, most reliable source of offense has been letting Brunson cook, but they also like to run wing Donte DiVincenzo off screens and use center Isaiah Hartenstein as a facilitator/handoff hub. Ideally, they’ll find more success with that stuff in the second round than they did in the first, if only because it would presumably lower the likelihood that Brunson burns out.

One thing to watch in Game 1: How much of an effort the Pacers make to get the ball out of Brunson’s hands. These decisions can be complicated, and Brunson has evolved into the type of player for whom there isn’t a “good” coverage, only ones that are less bad than others given the personnel involved. If Indiana elects to blitz Brunson’s pick-and-rolls most of the time, he probably won’t drop 40, but his teammates might feast on 4-on-3 opportunities and relieve him of the pressure to make plays in isolation. For this reason, when facing a superstar player who is doing the absolute most, some coaches prefer not to put two on the ball or help aggressively off of his teammates.

In theory, this will tire out said superstar over the course of a game or a series and prevent anybody else from finding a rhythm. That plan sounds a lot more sensible before the series starts, though, than when the guy at the top of the scouting report is dicing your defense up.

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