Nova Knicks Follow Wright Path in Game 1 Win Over Pacers

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

There was a time in recent years when New York Knicks fans were hoping for Jay Wright to become their team’s head coach after his college coaching success included two national championships in three years.

While that never came to fruition, Wright has nevertheless indirectly placed his imprint on the Knicks’ recent franchise turnaround.

The former national championship stars he coached at Villanova have helped lead the Knicks all season, especially with key injuries including the loss of three-time All-Star forward Julius Randle in late January.

But as much as they’ve already done that many times this year, Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, and Donte DiVincenzo collectively took that to yet another level while helping the Knicks rally for an entertaining and thrilling 121-117 Eastern Conference semifinal Game 1 win over their longtime playoff rival, the Indiana Pacers, at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.

So much so that their old coach excitingly tweeted the following when second-seeded New York — after doing the same four times in the first round against seventh-seeded Philadelphia — managed to yet again find a way to pull out a postseason game that the Knicks could have certainly lost:

This game was crazy !! Incredible if this is going to be like Sixers series ?? @Pacers are legit ! @nyknicks were mentally tough defensively down the stretch ! Big shots @Divincenzo @jalenbrunson1”

Wright would know that best since the ’Nova Knick trio developed the mental toughness necessary to become national champions under him, a toughness that has since not only grown further among those three players, but which has permeated throughout the rest of the Knicks’ roster under head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Somehow, some way, New York continues to keep fighting to the end until it keeps pulling out one seemingly unlikely playoff victory after another.

After barely beating Philadelphia in the opening round by three points twice, by five, and by seven, the Knicks were largely outplayed by the sixth-seeded Pacers, which ousted third-seeded Milwaukee in the first round.

Seven-foot, 250-pound center, Isaiah Hartenstein, known for his play in the paint, found himself with the ball near midcourt as the first half was winding down. Although he was only 1-for-3 from 3-point range in 75 regular season games this year and 0-for-1 from that distance this postseason, Hartenstein beat the first half buzzer with a desperation 55-foot 3-point heave to keep New York’s deficit at 55-49 by intermission instead of being down close to double digits by that point.

That proved later on to be just enough daylight for the ’Nova Knicks to go to work, with the three scoring all but five (by forward G. Anunoby) of New York’s 39 fourth quarter points — 21 of those scored by Brunson in the period — as the Knicks erased deficits of 94-85 with less than 10½ minutes left and 109-104 with a little over four minutes remaining while scoring 72 second-half points, the most New York has scored in a half in a playoff game.

Although highly improbable, the Knicks won a second straight playoff game after being outscored by a combined 88-8 off the bench. After closing Philadelphia out on the road in Game 6 of the first round last Thursday night despite being outscored 42-5 off the bench, Knick reserves were outscored by their Pacer counterparts by a similar 46-3 margin.

Guard T.J McConnell led that charge for Indiana with 18 points in 22 minutes along with former Knick first-round draft pick Obi Toppin, who added 12 points and six rebounds to complement starters Myles Turner (23 points) and Pascal Siakam (19 points, six rebounds).

Making it even more difficult to overcome the tremendous bench disparity for a second consecutive game was that New York also had seven more turnovers (14-7) and seven fewer assists (32-25).

Which goes to show just how much Wright’s ex-players carried the Knicks.

With his heroic fourth quarter, Brunson finished with 43 points on 14-of-26 shooting from the floor while making all 14 of his free throws, to go along with six rebounds and six assists.

In doing so, Brunson joined an exclusive club while creating two of his own.

Scoring at least 40 points for a fourth consecutive playoff game, Bruson matched ex-Knick Bernard King (1984) and Michael Jordan (1993) in that category, trailing only Jerry West, who accomplished the feat six straight times in 1965.

Brunson also became the first player in NBA history to record minimums of 40 points and five assists in four consecutive postseason games and he is first NBA player to score at least 39 points while shooting at least 45 percent from the floor in five straight playoff games (Brunson made half of his 146 shots over that span).

Giving Brunson some significant help, Hart scored 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting and posted game-highs of 13 rebounds and eight assists while playing the entire game. Meanwhile, DiVincenzo, who was only 2-for-7 in the opening half, shot 8-for-10 after halftime, when he scored 21 of his 25 points.

Hartenstein and Anunoby scored 13 points each but the Villanova trio collectively played 135 of the Knicks’ 240 minutes (56 percent), took 56 of New York’s 82 field goal attempts (68 percent), and scored 92 of the Knicks’ 121 points (76 percent).

After Philadelphia star Tyrese Maxey scored 46 points on 17-of-30 shooting to lead the 76ers to a Game 5 win at MSG last round, Maxey was held to just 17 points on 6-of-18 shooting with DiVincenzo often harassing him defensively. This time, with a different Tyrese star (Haliburton) as the defensive assignment to key on, DiVincenzo locked in again as Haliburton — Indiana’s second-leading scorer during the regular season (20.1 points per game) and the Pacers’ third-leading scorer in the first round (16.0 ppg) — was able to put up only six shots (making just two), including only one (a miss) from inside the arc while being held to a paltry six points.

After a 13-foot turnaround jumper from Brunson tied the game, 113-113, with 1:14 left, Brunson assisted on a DiVincenzo 3-pointer that put the Knicks ahead for good, 118-115 (the same score New York closed Philadelphia out by last week) with 40.4 seconds to go.

A DiVincenzo flop also sold a questionable yet crucial offensive foul call in the front court on Turner with 12.7 seconds remaining and the Knicks clinging to a precarious 118-117 lead. That allowed Brunson to seal the win with three free throws down the stretch.

Five 2024 postseason wins, five grind-out games that could have all been losses, but New York keeps discovering different ways to get it done. Different in some of the details, but always with Brunson leading the way and with his Villanova buddies Hart and DiVincenzo often providing the most support, following that same Wright path that led them to the last time they won championships.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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