How’s this for a plot development:
Jalen Brunson left Luka Doncic and became Luka Doncic. Allow me to explain.
Through four games against the Cavaliers in the 2023 NBA Playoffs, Jalen Brunson is averaging 8.5 isolation points per contest.
Why is that notable? A few reasons.
- It’s a massive jump from the regular season when Brunson averaged less than half that amount (3.2).
- It’s the second-most in the postseason so far, trailing only Kawhi Leonard (12.0), who has been limited to two games due to injury.
- It’s almost identical to what Luka Doncic averaged during the regular season (7.9) when he led the league in one-on-one scoring.
The last point is particularly interesting.
Brunson has gone from being Doncic’s teammate in Dallas for four seasons to basically doing his best Doncic impression for New York in these playoffs. He’s been remarkably efficient, too.
|Frequency||Points per game||Points per possession||Percentile|
|Jalen Brunson in regular season||13.2%||3.2||1.10||84.3|
|Jalen Brunson in playoffs||24.2%||8.5||1.42||94.4|
|Luka Doncic in regular season||23.8%||7.9||1.11||85.4|
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While Brunson (6-foot-2 and 190 pounds) isn’t nearly as big or strong as Doncic (6-foot-7 and 230 pounds), there aren’t many players in the league right now who create space for themselves as well as he does.
It helps that Brunson is a real threat to score from all three levels. He’s struggled from 3-point range in the series (28.0 percent), but he made 1.1 pull-up 3s per game at a 38.0 percent clip during the regular season, both of which were career highs.
His stepback 3 is right out of Doncic’s playbook:
Bite on that hang dribble, and you open the door to this sort of hurt:
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What Brunson lacks in speed and athleticism he makes up for with craft. As our Stephen Noh wrote last season, he often strings together moves like someone mashing buttons on NBA Street. (If you don’t get that reference, just know that Brunson has a deep bag of tricks and you missed out on a classic.)
Brunson might make this look easy, but stopping on a dime out of a euro step and finishing over one of the best rim protectors in the NBA as a 6-foot-2 guard with a below average wingspan is anything but:
Ditto for this masterclass in footwork that includes not one, but two fakes:
His expertise in that in-between area is how Brunson has made himself a lot of money and is now picking the Cavaliers apart in these playoffs. According to NBA.com, he’s only attempted seven shots at the rim in the series, but he’s 9-for-22 (40.9 percent) from midrange and 15-for-27 (55.6 percent) from floater range. Only six players have made more midrange jumpers than him and only three have made more floaters.
Brunson might not be as strong as Doncic, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t strong. One of his go-tos is what’s known as the Barkley, a move made famous by Hall of Famer Charles Barkley that is basically a drive that turns into a post-up.
And Caris LeVert have each learned that lesson in this series:
The Cavaliers had success blitzing and trapping Brunson in Game 2 to take the ball out of his hands, but the Knicks have responded by running fewer pick-and-rolls and more isolations for Brunson. They’ve also been more strategic with who sets the screen for Brunson when he does run a pick-and-roll knowing what’s likely coming.
RJ Barrett has gone from setting 62 ball screens for Brunson during the entire regular season to 22 in four games against the Cavaliers, per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. Barrett did a particularly nice job in Game 4 of attacking Cleveland’s scrambling defense when Brunson was doubled. Barrett, Brunson and Josh Hart’s performances helped the Knicks overcome another rough game from Julius Randle to come up with the win.
The result? A whole lot of questions and not many answers for a Cavaliers team that now finds themselves down 3-1 to the Knicks. They entered the series with two All-Star guards in Mitchell and Garland, but Brunson has outplayed both of them through four games.
Taking a page out of Doncic’s book has helped Brunson do just that.