Local product Brunson's performance against Bulls proves the time was right to change teams

After Jalen Brunson knocked down the game-clinching 3-pointer against the Bulls in overtime, he didn't taunt the crowd at the United Center.

He was gesturing to some old friends sitting in the crowd: Stevenson High School coach Pat Ambrose and former high school teammates Matt Johnson and Nick Dillon.

"It means a lot," Brunson said of winning at the UC on Wednesday night. "Not necessarily more, but as a lot of my friends from high school and growing up came to that game. It was pretty special."

Brunson's 3-pointer with 28.3 seconds left sealed the New York Knicks' 128-120 victory. The fact that Bulls guard Alex Caruso slipped and fell while trying to guard Brunson was a bit of a fluke, even if the moment was replayed on "SportsCenter" about 10 times that night.

But Wednesday's game showed Brunson made the right move by jumping from Dallas to New York as a free agent. He's a player who should have the ball in his hands at the end of a game, and that wasn't going to happen playing with Luka Doncic.

While piling up 30 points and 7 rebounds against the Bulls, Brunson was able to shake free from Caruso several times. Not many NBA players have been able to do that.

"I would say the role is different (from Dallas)," Brunson said after the game. "But having Luka as a teammate was special for four years. He put you in positions, when you thought you were out of it, to win every night. It's just a different role. I learned a lot from him and he will always be one of my great friends for sure."

Brunson is in a unique spot with the Knicks. Not only is his father Rick an assistant coach, but he has a long history with New York coach Tom Thibodeau.

Rick Brunson worked with Thibodeau in both New York, when Jeff Van Gundy was the head coach, and then again in Chicago. So Thibodeau is now coaching a player he knew as a toddler.

"It's surreal," Thibodeau said Wednesday. "When I first started, Rick was playing for the Knicks, I was an assistant and (Jalen) was 5 or 6 years old. He'd come in the locker room and we all got a kick out of him because he would imitate all the players on the team.

"Just to watch the way he's grown in all the things that he's experienced. When Rick was here as an assistant in Chicago, he was playing high school basketball. What he did and what he accomplished in the state and the city was unbelievable."

Flashback to 2014: Stevenson's Jalen Brunson, center, celebrates winning the Class 4A sectional final with his teammates. Daily Herald file photo

Brunson led Stevenson to the state title game three years in a row, finally winning as a senior in 2015. He then won two NCAA Tournament titles at Villanova, and outperformed his original status as a second-round NBA draft pick by a wide margin.

There's another advantage to his current situation: Thibodeau isn't every NBA players' cup of tea, but Brunson knew exactly what he was getting into by signing with the Knicks.

"One thousand percent. One thousand percent," Brunson said with a laugh. "I just knew. Before he even said anything, I knew what it was."

Not every player can cope with the hype and pressure that come with playing in Madison Square Garden. But Brunson said he's dealt with that issue by ignoring everything.

"I've got a great set of teammates," he said. "My circle I have with me is always closed, so the support I have with me is special and keeps me focused."

The Knicks seem to be jelling with the new lineup. They've won five in a row and moved into sixth place in the East with Wednesday's victory. The Bulls and Knicks will meet again Friday at the UC.

"Winning has always been first and foremost with him," Thibodeau said. "He enjoys his teammates having success. The best leadership you can have is what a player does in all aspects: How does he practice, how does he prepare, how does he conduct himself in the team meeting? He's the ultimate winner."

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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