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Knicks vs. Pacers: Jalen Brunson gets his Willis Reed moment as New York wins again doing it ‘our way’

SportsKnicks vs. Pacers: Jalen Brunson gets his Willis Reed moment as New York wins again doing it 'our way'


NEW YORK — In the locker room at halftime on Thursday, Isaiah Hartenstein could hear the crowd chanting, “M-V-P.” That is how the New York Knicks center knew that Jalen Brunson, his star teammate, was on the court warming up.

Brunson had gone to the locker room less than nine minutes into Game 2 of the Knicks’ first-round series against the Indiana Pacers and not played for the rest of the first half. “Jalen never asks out of a game, so I knew that there was something,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. The team announced that he was questionable to return with a sore right foot, but the players didn’t know how serious it was.

“We were going in thinking that we weren’t [going to get him back],” Hartenstein said. “So we came in, we were really talking about it. We knew we could beat ’em even if Jalen wasn’t back, so we had confidence.”

The Knicks were up by seven points when Brunson checked out, and the Pacers were up by 10 at at the half. Brunson heard the chant and noticed the standing ovation as he walked back onto the court at Madison Square Garden, but said he was focused on “making sure that I can move.” When New York forward Josh Hart saw Brunson getting shots up, “I told him just to be smart,” Hart said. 

Twenty-four minutes of basketball later, Hart had more words for Brunson: “A’ight, Willis.”

“I’d prefer not to comment on it,” Brunson said, with a sheepish smile on his face, when asked about his teammate’s Willis Reed reference following the Knicks’ 130-121 win, which put them up 2-0 in the series.

The comparison is irresistible, given that Brunson’s triumphant return occurred 54 years to the day after Reed hobbled onto the court and helped inspire the Knicks to beat the Lakers in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. But it is imperfect. After acting as a decoy during New York’s first few offensive possessions of the first half, Brunson made it clear that he was not out there just to give his team an emotional lift. He continually got into the paint. He initiated contact on drives. He made timely 3s. He earned more MVP chants.

“We needed him,” Knicks big man Precious Achiuwa said. “Obviously he came out with a lot of spark. Kind of like set us in place, calmed us down in the second half.”

Brunson played all 24 minutes of the second half, and in that time recorded 24 points on 9-for-16 shooting, plus four assists. In his 32 minutes overall, New York had an offensive rating of 149.2 and outscored Indiana by 26 points.

“We couldn’t have done it without him,” Hartenstein said.

In some ways, this was the same old Knicks story: Crazy stuff happens, Brunson leads them to a victory. This wasn’t even the first time in these playoffs that Brunson had gone to the locker room, reemerged and played hero. 

In other ways, though, this particular New York win was unlike all of the others. The team not only had to overcome Brunson’s injury scare; it had to hold on after losing forward OG Anunoby with less than four minutes left in the third quarter with what the team called a sore right hamstring; he appeared to hurt himself on a missed layup. Before that, Anunoby had scored 28 points on 10-for-19 shooting.

Hart described the win as “tough” and “gritty.” In that Brunson once again showed his fortitude and that the team persevered after yet another injury — on Tuesday, the Knicks announced that Mitchell Robinson would miss the rest of the playoffs because of an ankle injury — it definitely was. But this was not definitely some kind of grind-it-out affair. Indiana scored 131.5 points per 100 possessions, and its star, Tyrese Haliburton, finished with 34 points on 11-for-19 shooting, following through on his promise to be more aggressive.

In New York’s 16 minutes without Brunson, the Knicks scored 125.8 points per 100 possessions. Donte DiVincenzo finished with 28 points (including 6-for-12 shooting from deep) and four assists; Hart had 19 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists (in 48 minutes); Hartenstein had 14 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.

“When he’s out, we just have to move the ball more,” Hartenstein said. “I feel like when he’s out we especially go a little bit more to the elbow plays where I catch it, guys move off me.”

The Knicks shared the ball when Brunson was out, and they kept doing it after he returned, taking advantage of Indiana blitzing him. “This might be a product of being shorthanded all year,” Thibodeau said. “We know that this is our way. Our way is to play really hard all the time and to play together.” Hart knows that they are far from the only team that prides itself on having a “next-man-up” mentality, but the difference is that, when they talk about it, “we actually truly believe it,” he said. 

“It’s been us, sadly, all f—ing year,” Hartenstein said. “Guys being out, guys stepping up. That’s just our team.”

Looking for more NBA coverage? John Gonzalez, Bill Reiter, Ashley Nicole Moss and special guests dive deep into the league’s biggest storylines daily on the Beyond the Arc podcast.





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