Jalen Brunson outduels Giannis Antetokounmpo as Knicks topple Bucks for statement win

MILWAUKEE — The Knicks left Fiserv Forum with a statement win, a higher spot in the standings and their groove back.

Riding their engine Jalen Brunson and the energy boost from Isaiah Hartenstein, the visitors dominated the second half and rose to fourth in the East, besting the Bucks in a 122-109 victory Sunday night.

Brunson dropped 43 points, reinforcing his All-NBA candidacy while out-dueling Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Brunson added eight rebounds and six assists in 39 minutes — a one-man tour de force.

Jalen Brunson scored 43 points for the Knicks in their win against the Bucks. AP

It was his ninth 40-point game of the season, good for third in Knicks history.

In the five games against the Bucks this season, the point guard averaged 37 points.

“But he just had 35 two games in a row,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “He does it against everybody.”

Brunson kept the Knicks afloat during a rough first half, then got offensive help from DiVincenzo (26 points) as the Knicks won the final two quarters, 72-48.

The big play came from Hartenstein, who dropped a double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds) while dealing with Milwaukee’s giant frontcourt.

The Knicks’ center intercepted a pass into the paint meant for Antetokounmpo, then dove on the ground with a thud — beating Damian Lillard for the loose ball — to get possession for an easy lay-in.

It gave the Knicks a 10-point lead with less than five minutes left.

“That was unbelievable,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Those type of plays, they inspire, they unite. If that doesn’t get you excited — even you guys [the media] probably got excited.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 28 points against the Knicks on Sunday. AP

In addition to the hustle, Hartenstein’s point total was his second-highest of the season.

“I just did what the team needed. Just putting your body on the line. That’s kind of how I play,” Hartenstein said. “I don’t really care if I kind of go out there with bruises, it’s whatever the team needs. At that moment that was a big possession. Any ball at the end of the clock I can get I’ll go get it.”

The Knicks (46-32) leapfrogged the Cavaliers and are now tied with the Magic for third in the conference but lose the tiebreaker.

They’re also just one game behind the Bucks (47-31) for second.

OG Anunoby and the Knicks moved closer to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference standings after their win. AP

The final four games — at Chicago, at Boston, vs. the Nets, vs. Chicago — carry massive implications for playoff seeding. The standings cluster has Thibodeau dizzy.

“I have no idea what day it is,” he said. “It’s the best time of the year.”

Antetokounmpo returned from a one-game absence because of left hamstring soreness, just in time to assert his size and strength against the Knicks.

The two-time MVP dropped 28 points with 15 rebounds and eight assists while mostly being guarded by OG Anunoby, whose presence has coincided with a 16-3 record for the Knicks.

Asked how he might prepare for guarding Antetokounmpo, Josh Hart said he’d need protection.

“Get your football pads out, put your helmet on,” Hart said. “Brace for impact.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo added 15 rebounds and eight assists against the Knicks. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Hart’s words rang true but Antetokounmpo got no help. Lillard (23 quiet points) largely disappeared.

Khris Middleton had his tooth knocked out by an inadvertent flying DiVincenzo hand and was ruled out for the second half.

The win avoided the Knicks’ worst stretch of the season with what would’ve been their fifth defeat in six games.

Isaiah Hartenstein scored 18 points, his second-highest total this
season, in the Knicks’ win against the Bucks. USA TODAY Sports

They trailed by 11 at the break and then started the second half on a 20-6 run, which they rode to the finish line — with the help of a Brunson’s continued brilliance and a heart play from Hartenstein.

“It’s important but we got to build off that,” Brunson said. “We haven’t been playing our best as of late. So this was definitely a big win for us so we have to build off that.”

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