OG Anunoby rounding back into form at perfect time for Knicks

See, this is why you can dream a little bit if you’re a Knicks fan. This is what it looks like. OG Anunoby was away from the team so for long, on two separate occasions, that it was almost easy to forget why his arrival had been such a seminal moment for this team.

It was easy to believe those first 14 games — when the Knicks looked like an entirely different team, when Madison Square Garden was transformed into an acoustic madhouse reaching back to 1994, or 1973 — were a figment of the city’s imagination.

But it wasn’t a mirage. It was real.

And Tuesday night, we were reminded of exactly what they have when Anunoby is part of the rotation. Jalen Brunson was the offensive monster, as usual, dropping another 45 points and adding eight assists as the Knicks beat the Bulls 128-117, avenging Friday night’s loss at United Center and inching ever closer to clinching a playoff berth.

Anunoby scored 24 points, and he was a plus-12 across 35 minutes, and he was especially sharp early when he made a layup, a dunk and a 3-pointer to jump-start the Knicks on their way to a vital victory. He made three more 3s after that, too.

But where Anunoby is at his most dangerous — and where the Knicks are potentially most problematic in the playoffs — is on the other end of the floor. Tom Thibodeau kept him in the game a little too long in the first half, long enough for him to draw a fourth foul, and from there he had to ease off his aggressiveness, specifically on DeMar DeRozan.

“Stay out of the way and don’t foul,” was his mission after that.

But that first half …

A smiling OG Anunoby slaps hands with Tom Thibodeau late in the second half of the Knicks’ 128-117 win over the Bulls. AP

Well, he was everywhere. He was guarding DeRozan tight, occasionally moving onto Coby White. He was helping out. He was frustrating Bulls on every possession. He was being the kind of defensive nuisance the Knicks haven’t had in decades.

Better still, he looks unencumbered by the nagging elbow pain that cost him two long stints away from the team. The Knicks are still a wounded team, and will be for the balance of the season since they aren’t getting Julius Randle back.

But they feel a little more whole now. And they are starting to once again resemble the team that captured the Garden’s imagination those first 27 days of January, when they went 12-2 and weren’t just beating good teams but obliterating them.

OG Anunoby battles DeMar DeRozan for a loose ball during the Knicks’ victory. AP

“It felt good, I was trying to be aggressive,” Anunoby said. “When the team came out we wanted to have a good start and we did. We ran some plays as the game went on trying to find me, and I was trying to be aggressive.”

When Anunoby first returned from elbow surgery for a three-game cameo on March 12, he posted fine numbers and was his usual self on defense (and the Knicks, unsurprisingly, won all three games). But he seemed to be consistently favoring the banged-up elbow, and then it developed tendinopathy.

When he returned for Friday’s game in Chicago he looked fine, and while his defense in Sunday’s huge win in Milwaukee was stellar as always, he missed eight of the 10 shots he took and still looked a little rusty. There was no rust on Tuesday.

OG Anunoby makes a pass during the Knicks’ win as DeMar DeRozan defends. David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

“We brought our ‘A’ game,” Brunson said.

Brunson sure did. And so did Anunoby, serving as one of Brunson’s principal wingmen.

“It’s getting better and better every game,” Anunoby said. “I don’t even think about [the elbow] anymore.”

And as much as he brings the Knicks’ defense to a different level, he also fits perfectly with the other four members of the Knicks’ starting five, all of whom take pride in making the extra pass, all of whom can reward you if you’re willing to move without the ball. Brunson, Isaiah Hartenstein, Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo — they all got assists feeding Anunoby.

“They’re great passers,” Anunoby said of his teammates. “Whenever I see them trying to come off screens, I try to get in their vision either cut or spot up. And they usually find me.”

It was all beautiful to watch in January, when the Knicks demanded to be taken seriously as an elite member of the East’s powers (non-Boston division), and it was beautiful to watch Tuesday night.

“We play every game to win,” Anunoby said. “We don’t worry about anyone else. We just try to win each and every game.”

They’re now 17-3 with him in the lineup. They may not win every game. But it’s close.


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