Gritty Knicks Overcome Yet Again to Go Up 2-0 on Pacers

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Look up the words “grit,” “toughness,” and “resilience” in the dictionary (if anyone still uses a dictionary — or perhaps Google those words instead) and you may find pictures of the New York Knicks’ roster.

Just when you think the Knicks may have finally reached their breaking point, they somehow continue to endure.

The latest of many examples of that this season included an ironic scene that was perfectly fitting for the anniversary of a magical Knicks moment 54 exactly years earlier.

Already without All-Star forward Julius Randle, key center Mitchell Robinson, and reserve sharpshooting forward Bogdan Bogdanovic, New York lost its leader and superstar point guard Jalen Brunson to a right foot injury for the final 15:32 of the opening half at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night. The Knicks then lost starting forward O.G. Anunoby for the last 15:27 after he left the game with a left hamstring injury after having a breakout 28-point performance (including 22 points in the first half).

But coming out of the locker room to cheers just like injured star forward Willis Reed did with a couple of made shots in the same building on May 8, 1970 — to provide an emotional lift that helped carry New York to the franchise’s first NBA championship in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals — Brunson did even more production-wise, playing the entire second half while scoring 24 of his team-high 29 points after halftime to lead the second-seeded Knicks to a 130-121 Eastern Conference semifinal win and a 2-0 series lead over the sixth-seeded Indiana Pacers.

After Anunoby filled in admirably during Brunson’s absence, Gotham’s Batman had his usual help from his pair of Robins — forward Josh Hart and guard Donte DiVincenzo — continuing the trend of the three former national championship-winning Villanova teammates carrying New York against all odds to an unexpected No. 2 seed, a hard-fought ousting of first round ousting of seventh-seed Philadelphia that including four Knick wins by a total of only 22 points, and now, leading New York to the halfway point of dispatching Indiana while trying to reach the Eastern Conference finals.

Matching Anunoby’s total point output, DiVincenzo hit four of his six 3-pointers while scoring 20 of his 28 points in the second half. Hart (19 points, game-high 15 rebounds, seven assists) — who has played every second of the first two games of the series — was well-balanced in each half, with 10 points (while making all four of his shots), eight rebounds, and three assists in the first half before adding nine more points along with another six rebounds and four assists after intermission.

Starting center Isaiah Hartenstein provided additional support while narrowly missing a triple-double, with 14 points, 12, and a team-best eight assists.

For those still not believing in Brunson’s value to his team (after all he’s done for the Knicks this season) relative to others who were in the NBA Most Valuable Player conversation this year, New York was outscored, 56-39, during the time Brunson was forced to the locker room with his hurt foot. With Bruson in the game, the Knicks dominated the Pacers, 91-65.

That included New York jumping out to a 24-13 lead after a 15-3 run before Brunson left with the Knicks up, 24-17.

Indiana closed the final 4:04 of the first quarter on a 23-12 spurt to tie the game, 36-36. The Pacers’ offense continued to thrive in second quarter — behind point guard Tyrese Haliburton (who recovered from a six-point Game 1 with 22 of his game-high 34 points in the first half) — to lead, 73-63, at halftime.

With Brunson back in, New York turned up its defense and had Bruson and DiVincenzo combine for 9-for-12 shooting during a dominant 36-18 third quarter that moved the Knicks ahead, 99-91 after three periods.

Earlier in the quarter, the chemistry of the Villanova connection was on fine display when Hart found DiVincenzo on a beautiful bounce pass for a backdoor layup that capped a 21-4 run to start the period and which forced an Indiana timeout with New York leading, 84-79.

In the final frame, the Pacers stubbornly hung in, and were down only 112-110 after a Haliburton floater with 4:35 left but Indiana could get no closer thereafter as the Knicks continued their hustling postseason ways in the clutch of snatching key offensive rebounds, making timely shots, and grabbing all of the 50-50 balls they could get their hands on.

A DiVincenzo 3-pointer answered Haliburton’s bucket to make it a five-point game before a Brunson turnaround fadeaway jumper off of a DiVincenzo offensive board made it 121-113 with 2:31 left.

Following a pair of Haliburton free throws, another DiVincenzo 3 gave New York a 124-115 advantage with 1:33 left (which felt like a blowout at that point compared to the way the Knicks had barely scraped by in their five prior victories this postseason).

Leading by six, a Brunson floater in the lane put things out of reach in the final minute. Brunson then added a pair of technical free throws to help ultimately move him one point past Anunoby and DiVincenzo for the night after Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle, who complained about the officiating during and after the game, picked up a couple of techs eight seconds apart and was ejected.

Media personality Rodger Sherman commented in a Tweet after the game, “The miracle of the Knicks is they make fewer subs than their opponents, make more effort plays than their opponents, and still seem less exhausted than their opponents in crunch time. Shouldn’t be possible.”

Perhaps it shouldn’t, but that depends on who you’re comparing to. New York’s excellent conditioning, particularly among its key Villanova trio, along with Brunson and Hart switching to a partially plant-based diet in their college days and to a mostly plant-based diet now — which has greatly aided the latter duo with their energy and recovery — has given the Knicks an important physical edge over opponents to pull out close playoff games in the final minutes.

But it’s also about the Knicks’ sheer will and refusal to lose, to make winning, clutch plays no matter how many obstacles continue to pile up in their postseason path.

Or, simply put, as the Nova Knicks’ former college head coach, Jay Wright, tweeted after the game, “These games are incredible !! The will of the @nyknicks is indominable !! @TheGarden is 🔥🔥🔥” (fire).

At some point, the additional injuries may finally be too much to withstand. That moment could arrive as the series shifts to Indianapolis for the next two games, on Friday and Sunday. Potentially missing Anunoby would provide yet another huge challenge. Not only would the Knicks miss the possibility of having the type of production Anunoby provided in Game 2, but New York could conceivably be down to just six regular rotation players plus the rest of a bench which hasn’t seen much action this postseason.

The Knicks’ limit may finally be reached soon, but until then, there’s still every reason to believe they’ll continue to overcome as the already have.

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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