Gregg Popovich had good reason to worry about Jalen Brunson.
The legendary Spurs coach relayed his concerns about the Knicks point guard’s prowess before Wednesday’s game at MSG, then watched helplessly as Brunson torched the Spurs with a career-high 38 points.
Brunson’s special performance included a pair of clutch jumpers in the final two minutes, as the Knicks pulled away to win their third straight victory, 117-114. The Spurs had two chances to tie but flubbed their final two possessions with a five-second violation off an inbounds, then a shot-clock violation at the buzzer with a 3-point deficit.
So the Knicks (21-18) escaped with revenge on Wednesday, less than a week after they fell to the Spurs in San Antonio.
Brunson was injured for that first matchup, and Popovich wanted his players aware of his impact.
“I want them to recognize Brunson will be on the floor tonight. He wasn’t there last time,” Popovich said. “He’s a monster. He’s got a such a toughness about him. High basketball IQ, hard to guard. He really really tests your discipline, gets you jumping off your feet. For a little guy, he has great pivot that he uses oftentimes in the paint, that sort of thing. But he’s also unselfish. So concentrating on him is pretty important.”
The message wasn’t effective. Brunson scored 13 points in the first quarter as the Knicks took a quick 13-point lead. The Spurs rebounded in the second quarter — mostly with Brunson on the bench to rest — but still trailed at halftime to the Knicks, 62-55.
Popovich was also worried about Julius Randle, who finished with 25 points on 9-of-26 shooting.
“You hope you can match his physicality and energy on the court,” Popovich said. “Everything else is basketball stuff. Are you going to turn it over a lot? Are you going to block out? Are you going to get back in transition? Are you going to shoot uncontested shots? Are you going to take bad shots? That’s the same for every team that goes out there. But sometimes it’s about matchups. And if we can control those two guys [Brunson and Randle], we have a shot.”
Brunson’s 38 points was four points higher than his previous regular-season best. He shot 17-for-27 with six assists.
The Knicks carried a fully healthy roster but with caveats: Obi Toppin and Derrick Rose, who returned from injuries, weren’t expected to play because they’re still recovering. Both picked up DNPs.
The rebuilding Spurs (12-26) were led by Keldon Johnson’s 26 points. However, Johnson failed to get a potential tying shot off before the buzzer. Before that — with a two-point deficit and 5.7 seconds left — Spurs rookie Jeremy Sochan failed to get his inbounds pass out and committed the five-second violation.