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Gregg Popovich knew what was coming: “Brunson is just a hell of a competitor“

The Spurs can’t beat the Knicks this time with JB leading the way.

San Antonio Spurs v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It was ugly, it was close, but it was enough.

The Knicks handled the young Spurs and managed to earn their third win in a row after defeating San Antonio 117-114 at MSG. The victory saw New York (21-18) climb back up to the sixth seed in the East while San Antonio (12-26) stayed down on the 14th seed in the West.

This win, though, was never a given for a Knicks team that lost 122-115 in San Antonio just last week.

“I want to recognize that [Jalen] Brunson will be on the floor tonight. He wasn’t there last time. He’s a monster,” Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich said before the game. Pop knew what was missing a week ago and what was coming on Wednesday, January 4.

Brunson, who missed three games through the Texas Trip but returned to the starting lineup on Monday against Phoenix, put together his best-ever regular-season performance by dumping 38 points on the Spurs yesterday.

“He’s a heck of a player. He was always a nemesis in Dallas. Now he’s in New York. He’s got it all. He’s got the skill. He’s got the toughness. He’s got the basketball IQ to go with it. Just a hell of a competitor,” Popovich said.

The point guard connected on 63% of his 27 (!) field-goal attempts hitting paydirt from beyond the arc three times and once from the charity stripe.

“He had it going pretty good,” coach Tom Thibodeau said of Brunson. JB finished with seven boards and six dimes on top of his scorching hot 38 pops.

“We had to turn it up a notch. We had to grind it out, just find a way to win,” said Brunson. “I think most importantly we kind of just talked to ourselves and got ourselves in the mindset we need to finish the game no matter what, no matter how we’ve just got to do it. We fought.”

Brunson was referencing the late effort by a resilient Spurs team that found itself down just two points with four seconds to go and Evan Fournier visiting the free-throw line. Fournier hit a freebie and that sealed the final 117-114 score for the Knicks.

Speaking of Fournier, the Frenchman logged his shortest playing time since November 5 by staying on the court for 11 minutes on Wednesday while contributing six points (three free throws and a triple). Isaiah Hartenstein (19), Jericho Sims (22), and Miles McBride (10) were the only other reserves given minutes by Thibodeau.

It was a night to forget for Julius Randle, even on a 25-point scoring effort. That’s because it took the All-Star candidate 26 field-goal attempts to reach that tally hitting just 9-of-26 and one 3-point shot of the eight he launched.

“I was garbage [Wednesday night] so I had to do something,” said Randle after the game. “Just playing hard,” he added after grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds, filling a packed stat line that included three dimes, three steals, and four blocks (along with five TOs, though).

Randle acknowledged that the rest of the Knicks players “did a good job just keeping me motivated,” adding that he “got a little pissed off at myself” which ultimately “intensified my motor a little bit just to play a little harder.”

The chase-down block by Randle on Josh Richardson was one of the signature plays of the night. “He had a couple steps on me. I saw he was measuring his steps looking back. Just chased it down, blocked it, and Jalen did a good job of not quitting either. He got back in the play and got the rebound.”

New York limited the Spurs to just one-of-five buckets in the final 5:20 of regulation, while San Antonio turned the ball over four times in that span. That defensive effort came at the end of a Spurs’ 18–7 run in which Pop’s kids took the lead with 4:21 to go. From that point on, though, the Knicks just put the clamps on San Antonio and gave them no chance.

Your Knickerbockers had to work until the very final possession, though, with Quentin Grimes closing out on Keldon Johnson and preventing him from attempting a shot. “We had about three and a half seconds on the shot clock. Jalen and Julius kinda had a little miscommunication with a double. I saw Keldon was wide open, so I had to make a decision to go out there,” Grimes said. “A three is gonna tie the game up, so I had to make sure to get out there, get a hard closeout and force a shot clock violation to end the game, late-clock situation.”

Grimes scored 14 points and stole a couple of rocks. Immanuel Quickley added 15 points while dishing out five dimes and pulling down eight boards. Mitchell Robinson got into foul trouble and could only get four points and five rebounds on a low 13 minutes of playing time.

“It felt like we were just playing harder towards the end,” Quickley said. “Sometimes, that’s just what it takes, giving a little bit extra effort.”

Thibodeau thinks the Spurs “have a lot of versatility with the way they can switch,” and praised Brunson’s game on Wednesday by saying that his point guard “made really good reads and he got into the paint, and he did a lot of stuff that we needed.”

Pop, again, could only find wonderful words to describe Brunson’s magnificent game. “He’s got it all, he’s got the skill, he’s got the toughness, he’s got the basketball IQ to go with it. He’s just a hell of a competitor.”

Brunson himself said that he “could have 38 or three points,” but “if we win that’s all I really care about.” The leader of the Knicks made clear “that’s my goal, my mindset, and it’s the mindset of this team that we’ve got to keep it going.”

“It does feel good with a win,” Brunson finished.

Thibodeau didn’t sweat his final comments, boiling it all down to the simplest of statements: “the bottom line is getting the win,” said the coach before wrapping it all up by saying that New York “just got to scratch wins out.”

So far, so good.

The Knicks go north of the border next to face the Toronto Raptors (16-22) on Friday at 7:30 PM EST at the Scotiabank Arena. It would be the fourth victory in a row for New York if they can get the W against the struggling Raptors, who have gone 3-7 in their last 10 games and are riding a two-game losing skid.