Jalen Brunson, Knicks using costly turnover vs. Heat as motivation in playoffs

NEW YORK — The only time Josh Hart spoke about it was to poke fun at Jalen Brunson.

After all, Brunson’s 2023 playoff run ended in similar fashion to the brutal ending to Hart’s Villanova career.

With a turnover.

Hart and Brunson were teammates on the 2017 Wildcats team bumped from the NCAA Tournament’s second round by the Wisconsin Badgers.

And when the Badgers denied Brunson on a crunch-time inbounds play, Donte DiVincenzo passed the ball to Hart, who drove to the rim before Wisconsin’s Vitto Brown stole the ball, forcing DiVincenzo to foul for a pair of game-sealing free throws.

Fast forward to last year’s second-round playoff series against the Miami Heat, and Brunson and Hart are teammates once again.

It’s Game 6, the Knicks are down two with less than 25 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and Brunson has the ball in his hands.

Jimmy Butler is guarding him.

You know what happens next: the nightmare ending to last season’s unexpected Cinderella playoff run.

Brunson drives baseline into a double team, Julius Randle cuts from the opposite wing, Brunson passes to a cutting Randle, and the Heat deflect the pass and recover the loose ball.

Game over. Knicks lose in six.

“The only time I talked about it was just to let him know that I was open at the top of the key. Wide-open. We’ve made jokes about it,” Hart said after practice at the Knicks’ Tarrytown training facility on Friday. “Because the way my college career ended, I think I lost the ball or got stripped, and we lost, and that’s how my college career ended. He said he was open. And then last year, it was the other way around. I was open. So sometimes we talk about it, but that’s something I know he thinks about.”

Brunson thinks about this moment. A lot more than one would think he does, he says. His Knicks were in position to force Game 7, which would have been at Madison Square Garden. Who knows what would have happened in front of the rowdy New York fans with the season on the line on their home turf.

The blunder is clear fuel for a player whose ascent to All-NBA status and MVP consideration can only be further crystallized by a brilliant playoff run for a Knicks team finishing second in the East.

“I made a terrible decision and I had to live with that throughout the whole summer,” Brunson said Friday.

It’s not mid-training fuel — he doesn’t curse the play with every rep on the floor.

“But that moment creeps back in your mind,” he said. “You see it all over social media … it’s impossible not to see things like that.”

The Knicks believe Brunson is better equipped to handle a playoff defense this time around.

For starters, Randle was limited in last year’s run due to an ankle injury he sustained at the end of the season. Brunson immediately assumed more responsibility with Randle playing as a shell of himself.

This year, Randle has been out since Jan. 27 after dislocating his shoulder.

“He’s played a lot of different roles. He can effectively play without the ball. He knows how to move without the ball. He’s obviously great with the ball in his hands,” said head coach Tom Thibodeau. “But I think all those different roles — and I think he’s been in a lot of big moments. And I think he’s shown how well he handles those moments. He has the unique ability to go up a level. So that’s what makes him who he is. I think each experience teaches him something. And I think he’s grown, he continues to grow. I think all the things he’s done is part of his development.”

Randle is out for the season, and the Knicks — as they’ve done all season — will lean heavily on their All-Star point guard.

They won’t just lean on him to score. The Sixers will deploy a variety of defenses tailored to getting the ball out of his hands.

The last time the ball left Brunson’s hands in the playoffs, the Knicks’ season came to an end as a result.

Brunson and Hart both have crunch-time blunder post-traumatic stress disorder. They hope to avoid repeating past mistakes.

“Whenever you lose to a team, you think about everything. This summer, I know he thought about it,” said Hart. “This summer, all I thought about was Miami, and then obviously I was with Spo [Erik Spoelstra] and USA Basketball. So all we thought about this summer was what we could have done against Miami to move on. That’s what we’ve got to fuel us to now in terms of what can we do, what can we do better against Philly to move on to the second round.”