The return of Jalen Brunson on Saturday afternoon provided a boost to the New York Knicks in their bid to clinch a guaranteed playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, in a much more precarious spot in the Western Conference playoff race, can only hope a day off Sunday gets them closer to receiving a spark from the return of Anthony Edwards.
The Knicks will look to further solidify a top-six spot in the East on Monday night, when they are slated to host the skidding Timberwolves in the final regular-season game between the teams.
Both teams played Saturday. Brunson finished with 24 points and made a series of key plays in the final minutes of a 116-110 win over the visiting Denver Nuggets. The Timberwolves completed a winless back-to-back set by falling to the Toronto Raptors, 122-107.
The Knicks (42-30) went 2-1 as Brunson sat out with a bone bruise in his left foot. They will enter Monday in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, four games ahead of the seventh-place Miami Heat and eight games clear of the Chicago Bulls, who occupy 10th place and the final spot in the play-in tournament.
But Brunson — credited with changing the team’s culture and identity since he signed a four-year deal as a free agent last July — opened and closed Saturday’s win with reminders of why he’s perhaps the most essential player in the Knicks’ bid to get beyond the first round of the playoffs for just the third time this century.
Brunson scored 16 points in the first quarter as the Knicks raced out to a 36-28 lead. New York fell behind by 13 in the third quarter and trailed 105-104 with five minutes left in the fourth before Brunson scored four points and added an assist down the stretch. Brunson hit a pair of free throws to extend the lead to 114-110 with 43 seconds left before dishing to Mitchell Robinson for an insurance dunk 19 seconds later.
“I think, honestly, we’ve obviously turned a lot of heads,” Brunson said. “But I think most importantly, we’re proving to each other that we belong. And we’ve got continue to do that — night in, night out.”
An ill-timed slump continued Saturday for the Timberwolves (35-37), who have lost three straight and five of six and are almost as close to climbing into a top-six spot as they are to falling out of the playoff race entirely.
The Timberwolves entered Sunday in a three-way tie for eighth place with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz, each of whom were 34-36 ahead of the Thunder’s game against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday afternoon. Minnesota was 1 1/2 games behind the sixth-place Dallas Mavericks but just a half-game ahead of the 11th-place Los Angeles Lakers and one game ahead of the 12th-place New Orleans Pelicans prior to the Lakers’ and Pelicans’ games against the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets, respectively, on Sunday night.
The Timberwolves, who have been without star center Karl-Anthony Towns (right calf strain) since late November, absorbed another key injury Friday, when leading scorer Anthony Edwards (24.7 points per game) rolled his right ankle in a 139-131 double-overtime loss to the Bulls. Edwards missed Saturday’s game but has already shed the walking boot he wore Friday night.
“We’ve got to keep our heads up,” Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch said. “We’ve got to keep fighting. See what we look like, who’s available to play come Monday. Got to stay positive right now. That’s all we can do.”
–Field Level Media