On a night that Jalen Brunson was named an All Star for the first time, he once again performed like the superstar he is.
Brunson took over the game in the fourth quarter and scored 10 of his game high 40 points to lead the Knicks to their 9th win in a row as they overtook the Indiana Pacers, 109-105 at Madison Square Garden last night.
“It was really cool, the whole experience tonight, how we won. Obviously, what happened before the game. You always work for certain moments but you never know how to react once it happens. It was special,” the first time All Star said after a memorable night.
The surging Knicks are 32-17 and moved to within a half game of the Milwaukee Bucks for second place in the Eastern Conference.
It was astounding that the shorthanded Knicks were even in this game, much less win it. Julius Randle (who was also named an All Star for the third time), O.G. Anunoby and Quentin Grimes were all injured while the Knicks shot 21% (8 for 38) from beyond the arc (at one point, the Knicks missed 17 consecutive three-point attempts), but their defense, their grit and their work on the glass proved to be the difference.
The Knicks outrebounded the Pacers, 60-44. It was a 35-16 advantage in the second half with a total of 24 offensive rebounds that led to 25 second chance points. Indiana was the NBA’s highest scoring team at nearly 125 PPG, but the Knicks held them to 47 points in the second half.
“The thing that probably hurt us more than anything, the rebounding early on so we were giving up second shots,” Coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Once we fixed that, the game got within reach and then we just kept battling.”
Thibodeau started Isaiah Hartenstein at the five and had a career high 19 rebounds (8 offensive rebounds), while Precious Achiuwa started at the four and played 43 minutes while grabbing 16 boards (8 offensive rebounds).
“I thought they [Hartenstein and Achiuwa] gave us great minutes, a lot of toughess,” Thibodeau said. “The rim protection was really good. I thought Precious, he had a tough match up [Pascal Siakim] all night. Initially, we didn’t know how much he was gonna be able to play at the four, he’s done a terrific job.”
Miles McBride gave the Knicks a spark off the bench with 16 points including 8 consecutive points that bridged the third and fourth quarters.
Jalen Smith led the Pacers with 20 points off the bench. Siakim had 17 and Tyrese Haliburton scored 15 points, but played only 22 minutes as he is on a minutes restriction since returning from injury.
The Knicks trailed by as much as 15, but, as has been the case during this impressive streak, they never seem to get flustered. “Just the group of guys we got, the coach we got,” Hartenstein said. “I don’t feel like we’ll ever give up no matter how big the lead is. That’s something that we, as a group, we take pride in.”
Brunson did not start the fourth quarter but the Knicks were trailing 91-85 when he re-entered the game to spark a 12-0 run that made it a six point lead with just over four minutes remaining. The Knicks All Star guard had 7 consecutive points in the run.
With just over two minutes left, there was a sequence that typified the gritty Knicks of late.
Knicks were leading by one when Brunson had the ball in the backcourt and was double teamed. Brunson was poked in the eye by Indiana’s Andrew Nembhard but there was no call as Smith stole the ball and dunked for a 100-99 lead with 2:00 left.
Thibodeau, the Knicks bench and the sell out crowd at MSG were incensend, but Brunson had the answer.
Brunson came back down the court with a vengeance. He almost dared the refs to call a foul on him as he drove hard to the hoop and scored and was fouled to give the Knicks a 101-100 lead with 1:46 left.
Brunson missed the free throw but Hartenstein got the rebound and that led to Donte DiVicenzo, who had an off night, connecting on a step back jumper that made it 103-100.
“You just love his competitiveness and he never goes away,” said Thibodeau after the hottest team in the NBA pulled off one of their most impressive wins of the season.
On the ensuing possession, Achiuwa blocked Siakim’s lay up attempt and then was on the other end for a tip in of a missed three to give the Knicks 105-100 lead with 1:04 left and they never looked back.
Early on, it did not look like the Knicks were going to extend their streak. The high scoring Pacers came out flying and scored 18 points just four and a half minutes into the game as they took a 36-26 lead after one quarter.
With a little over six minutes left, Haliburton dunked over DiVicenzo and then appeared to taunt the Knicks guard, who shoved him and was handed a technical. Haliburton canned the technical free throw but DiVicenzo hit a three and then scored on a driving lay up and the game was on.
The physicality provided a reminder of the heated Knicks/Pacers battles from the 90s that starred Patrick Ewing and Garden villain, Reggie Miller.
“We knew that’s how they played the first time so we gotta be prepared for that,” said Josh Hart, who did not make a field goal in 38 minutes but still contributed to the win with 12 rebounds and three assists. “We gotta be physical on our own side. We did that for the most part. We crashed the glass, rebounded the ball very well, off and defensively so we were prepared for that.”
Former Knick Obi Toppin got some cheers when he entered the game but those turned to boos when he slammed one home for a 47-32 lead as the Pacers went on to a 58-51 halftime lead.
McBride closed the third quarter with five consecutive points to keep it a five point deficit after three. That proved to be beneficial as Thibodeau was able to have Brunson on the bench in the final minutes of the third quarter, until he entered the game in the fourth.
“It was a great win,” Brunson said. You’ve got to give it to that team over there, they play fast, they play hard, they play physical.”
Everyone around the Knicks was happy for their two, well deserving All Stars.
“We’re thrilled about him [Brunson] becoming an All Star. It’s a testament to his commitment and the work that he’s put in and the same with Julius,” Thibodeau said. “It wasn’t given to them, they earned it.”
Hart has had a birds eye view of Brunson’s development from a National Champion into an NBA All Star. “Couldn’t be happier, couldn’t be prouder of him. He put the work in for a long time, hopefully the first of many,” his Villanova and Knicks teammate said.
The news on Randle was encouraging as it was reported that he’s begun his rehab and will be re-evaluated in two to three weeks for his dislocated right shoulder.