Advertisement

Kristian Winfield: Jalen Brunson’s ankle injury strains already depleted Knicks team

Elsa/Getty Images North America/TNS

NEW YORK — Donte DiVincenzo didn’t see the play, but the cameras caught it in 4K.

Jalen Brunson knifed through the lane with five and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter attempting to put away a depleted but resilient Memphis Grizzlies team at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.

It’s a move he’s done time and time again — only this time it went awry.

This time, his right ankle buckled and his body followed, then he rolled back and forth in pain on the Garden floors.

That’s what DiVincenzo saw: He was in the far corner for the play and only caught the aftermath.

An unfamiliar, deafening silence befell The World’s Most Famous Arena. The first-time NBA All-Star who doubles as the best basketball player in the city had suddenly fallen to a right ankle injury.

DiVincenzo, however, has played with Brunson dating back to their 2016 NCAA championship season at Villanova. They won it a second time in 2018. He knows Brunson is as tough as they come — after all, the starting point guard gutted through a fourth-quarter injury earlier this season and didn’t miss the following game.

“Playing with him for so long and knowing [how tough he is] — I said, ‘you good?’ And he said, ‘I’m good,’ and I didn’t ask anything after that,” DiVincenzo said after the game. “I don’t worry about Jalen at all. He’s one of the toughest guys in the league. I’m not worried.”

Brunson’s injury alone isn’t a cause for concern, but the cumulative effect the injury bug has had on the Knicks is beginning to take its toll.

He is the fourth Knicks starter to suffer an injury in the past two months: Mitchell Robinson suffered a stress fracture in his left ankle on Dec. 8 that required surgery, Julius Randle dislocated his right shoulder against the Miami Heat 10 days ago, and Tuesday’s victory over the Grizzlies marked OG Anunoby’s fifth game in a row missed with right elbow inflammation.

For what it’s worth, Brunson tightened his shoes, rose to his feet under his own power, then walked to the sidelines but did not go directly to the locker room. He left Madison Square Garden without crutches or a walking boot but with a slight limp in his walk.

As of the end of the game, head coach Tom Thibodeau knew nothing of Brunson’s injury status other than he was being evaluated by the medical team. As was key reserve and fill-in starter Josh Hart, who suffered an apparent knee injury in the fourth quarter as well. Hart left the Garden shortly behind Brunson with no visible impairment with his gait.

And as for the crowd who believes Brunson should have spent the entirety of the fourth quarter on the bench, the depleted Grizzlies were rolling after the Knicks built a 28-point lead with 48 seconds left in the third quarter.

By the time Thibodeau turned back to Brunson, who sat until the 8:08 mark of the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies cut the Knicks’ lead to 20. And when Brunson got hurt, Memphis cut the deficit down to just 10.

In fact, the Grizzlies made it a four-point game at the 2:05 mark of the period before DiVincenzo’s 3 restored momentum in the Knicks’ favor.

It was a near-blunder at the Garden against a Grizzlies team that missed all five of their starters and a large chunk of their normal rotation players.

DiVincenzo pointed to the Dallas Mavericks, who led the Milwaukee Bucks by 25 then trailed by as many as 15 in a 12-point loss that cemented Doc Rivers’ status as head coach of the Eastern Conference All-Stars next week.

“In this league, no lead is safe. You see how many times throughout the season so far, you see a 20-point lead, 25-point lead just go and flip the other way,” DiVincenzo said. “Everybody wants to play, and when your name’s called, you go out there and you do your job.”

The Knicks will now be tested beyond belief. DiVincenzo believes Brunson will be able to play, but his status has not yet been determined for Thursday’s matchup against the Mavericks, the team he left to sign a contract with the Knicks two summers ago.

If Brunson can’t go, it’ll mean more DiVincenzo, who has been on a scoring tear in games Anunoby and Randle have missed due to injury.

DiVincenzo is averaging 27.8 points over his last five games and has made at least four threes in each of those games. He is ready to pick up the slack if Brunson can’t go — as he’s done already over the past few games — but isn’t counting his All-Star teammate out just yet.

“I think recently I have been doing that, but that’s not my focus. My mindset is he’s playing. I don’t question that at all, I’m not worried about him,” he said. “And whatever the lineup is that we have, guys are in the NBA for a reason. Thibs has a blueprint for us laid out and a game plan. You follow that and everybody be aggressive and you’ve seen guys have big nights, so I’m not too worried about it.”