Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau is disgusted with the way Jalen Brunson is being officiated, but he may be misguided

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The New York Knicks fell to the Orlando Magic, 117-108, on Friday, and head coach Tom Thibodeau was heated. Not necessarily because of the loss (although surely that didn’t improve his mood), but because Thibs is “sick and tired” of the way Jalen Brunson is being officiated.

“What [Brunson] is going through is ridiculous,” Thibodeau said. “He’s getting hammered time after time, and I’m just getting sick and tired of it. I watch [the plays]. I sent [them into the league office]. I see it all. And they’re fouls. Plain and simple. They’re fouls. There’s no other way to say it. They’re fouls.

“No one drives the ball to the rim more than [Brunson] does,” Thibodeau continued. “And if you rake across his arm, you rake across his arm. If you hit him in the head, you hit him in the head. Those are fouls. … Sick and tired of it.”

And with that, a disgusted Thibs up and stormed out of the press conference.

Let’s do a little reconnaissance here. When Thibodeau says “nobody drives to the rim more than Brunson,” is that true? No, it’s not. Brunson averages 16.6 drives per game, which is a top-10 mark, but a decent bit lower than guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luka Doncic.

Going further, Brunson drives into the paint a lot, but he doesn’t often get all the way to the rim, where a majority of contact is created. Per Cleaning the Glass, only 16% of Brunson’s total shot attempts come within four feet of the basket, an exceedingly low number.

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So if you’re of the belief that a certain amount of drives should directly correlate with a certain number of foul calls (which is flawed logic to start with, but you do you), then Brunson isn’t meeting the criteria that Thibs thinks he is.

Brunson looks to do most of his damage in the short mid-range areas, creating skillful, shifty advantages with footwork and fakes – which doesn’t necessarily demand a whistle the way a forceful, rim-attacking driver like, say, Ja Morant or Anthony Edwards or even De’Aaron Fox often does.

Stephen Curry is a crafty, largely grounded finisher like Brunson, rather than a contact seeker; and it’s no coincidence that Warriors fans are also always griping about the calls Curry supposedly doesn’t get.

I don’t watch every single Knicks game, but I do watch every Warriors game and I can tell you, Curry’s case doesn’t hold water. He’s just not a natural foul drawer. He relies on body bumps because he’s not creating vertical advantages that force aggressive contests. The very art of his finishing is that it largely avoids shot blockers. The same goes for Brunson.

It’s why Brunson’s drives generate an average of just 1.7 free throws per game, the same as Jayson Tatum, who drives half as much. The pressure they put on the rim is just different.

Now, are there instances when Brunson gets hacked and it doesn’t get called? Of course. I’m certainly not going to bat for the zebras. Generally speaking, NBA officials get played for suckers way too often. But anyone who watches enough NBA hoops knows that the problem with officiating isn’t the calls they don’t make; it’s the ones they do.

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Taking all this into account, let’s look at the plays Thibodeau was visually upset about on Friday.

First quarter: Brunson gets around Jalen Suggs and tries to have his cake and eat it too, stopping short for a little floater while also subtly moving backward into Suggs in hopes for a whistle. Neither works, and Brunson simply loses control of the ball. Thibodeau can throw his arms up in disbelief all he wants, but as you can see from Brunson’s reaction running back, he knows he wasn’t fouled.

Second quarter: Brunson again breaches the paint, but Suggs slides his feet to stay in front and Brunson tries to throw his body into him. Suggs very clearly holds his ground with his arms straight up and is not in the vicinity of making contact with Brunson. This is a flop. These are the calls we all hate, and this is the rare occasion where the officials don’t fall for the antics.

Fourth quarter: Brunson drives, this time all the way to the rim. He fades away from the body of Goga Bitadze, who plays it straight up, and is rightfully rewarded with a no-call. The problem is that Suggs rakes across Brunson’s shoulder/arm from behind when going for the block.

This is a foul. The officials just missed this one. No question about it.

A better angle:

This last play is a good example of why Brunson doesn’t tend to get as many foul calls as his aggression as a driver would, on the surface, seem to warrant. Again, he doesn’t rise up above Bitadze and force contact. In fact, he fades away from him.

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On this particular play, Suggs happens to come from behind and get him, but there are plenty of instances where it’s just Brunson and the big man and he instinctively does what almost all small, non-leaping guys have spent their whole life doing: Avoiding the shot blocker. Fade away, pivot, flip up a high arcing floater or scoop one underneath, whatever craft you can muster.

It’s good for getting buckets. Not for drawing fouls. To me, Thibodeau’s cries to the league office are going to continue to fall on deaf ears, because Brunson is not getting wronged to the degree his coach (shocker) wants to believe he is.