Midway through their 2021 first-round playoff series with the LA Clippers, the Dallas Mavericks‘ coaches realized they had a problem: They could no longer rely on Jalen Brunson.
A third-year guard at the time, Brunson was coming off a breakout regular season, one in which he’d established himself as one of the league’s premier off-the-bench forces. He could score in bunches, from all over the court, and he made more shots than he missed.
When Mavericks star Luka Doncic needed an in-game breather, it was Brunson who would take the reins.
But there is a reason Brunson had fallen into the second round of the 2018 draft, despite being the engine for a pair of NCAA championship teams at Villanova and a former National College Player of the Year. He is just 6-foot-2 — small, by NBA standards. Also, he isn’t particularly fast. Nor does he jump particularly high. The fear at the time was that he’d be swallowed up by the bigger and faster and stronger athletes in the NBA.
Which is exactly what happened against the Clippers, a team stacked with long and athletic wings. Brunson had played well in the series’ first three games, but then LA slid the slithery 6-foot-8 Nicolas Batum onto him.
Brunson disappeared. He scored just 18 points in the series’ final four games. He played just 10 minutes in a Game 7 loss. His struggles, he’d say a few months later, “sat with me all summer.”
“Their length and switching just ate him up,” a member of the Mavericks’ front office recently recalled. “By the end of the series, he was basically unplayable.”
Two years later, Brunson’s 2021 playoff performance stands as an inflection point, one that set the table for the position in which he and his current team, the New York Knicks, find themselves: one win away from the team’s first playoff series victory since 2013, with Brunson leading the way. They could advance with a win against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday.
“I wouldn’t really trade any experience for anything,” he said Tuesday. “Knowing how I played that series and knowing what I could have done, what could have been better, that kind of was always on my mind. And it still is.”
For one, Brunson might not be in New York if not for that poor performance. His struggles spooked the Mavericks, who declined to offer him an extension that summer, paving the way for him to sign as a free agent with the Knicks last offseason.
More important, though, is how the loss to the Clippers gave Brunson a taste of tactics he’d be facing for the rest of his career and, in doing so, laid bare where he most needed to improve. The playoffs would always be loaded with big, long, fast defenders. Brunson realized that if he wanted to become the player he believed he could be, he’d have to figure out ways to navigate those minefields.
That work started in the months after the Clippers series. Brunson worked on his game, as usual, but placed an emphasis on figuring out how to take advantage of specific angles, like the ones that present themselves when opponents switch defensive assignments on ball screens.
“That’s one of the things he’s gotten so much better at,” a former Mavericks assistant coach said. “He has this incredible ability to find every nook and pounce as soon as you give it to him, even when going up against longer defenders.”
Ironically, for Brunson, that meant learning to slow down. Against the Clippers, he looked rattled. He’d flail up a rushed floater in the paint on one play, force a step-back jumper on the next. He hit just 45% of his 2-pointers, and, according to tracking from Synergy Sports, only managed to get off two shots off isolation plays the entire seven-game series.
In his 114 minutes on the floor, the Mavericks were outscored by 56 points.
To watch Brunson in this year’s playoffs is to watch a different player. It’s not that Brunson has transformed his game — it’s more that he’s perfected it.
On Tuesday, he mentioned how learning how to stay “composed” and “poised” has been a key for him. He’s also become a knockdown 3-point shooter (41.6% overall and 38% off the dribble during the regular season, both career-best marks), which has forced defenders to crowd him and opened all sorts of lanes. Mix all that with his dazzling footwork, head-fakes and shoulder-shakes, and you have a package that has left defenders looking helpless.
In four games against the Cavaliers, Brunson is averaging 24.3 points. He’s attacked the Cavs one-on-one (according to Synergy, he’s been the postseason’s most efficient isolation player; only James Harden has isolated more frequently and only Spencer Dinwiddie has averaged more points per isolation). He’s carved them up in pick-and-rolls, switching between calling his own number and beating traps by drawing multiple defenders and then hitting teammates beneath the break.
“He’s had a lot of success going up against size,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said 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’s played, compared to just 75.8 when he sits. Giving the ball to Brunson has been their only efficient offense, a far cry from two years ago. Back then, he was the Mavericks’ weak link. Now? Brunson’s the engine of a Knicks squad that has won more playoff games this season than the franchise has in the past 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 the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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