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Battered Knicks excelled in Indiana. Will they have enough for Game 7 at Madison Square Garden?

Battered Knicks excelled in Indiana.  Will they have enough for Game 7 at Madison Square Garden?

INDIANAPOLIS — Josh Hart does just about everything on the basketball court, except ask to be taken off the basketball court. He had scored four complete games through the Knicks’ first 11 postseason games, however, with New York potentially on the brink of its first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2000, the alarming sight of Hart moving toward the sideline, His left hand embraces his hand. Rib Zone, it came just over five minutes into the first quarter on Friday night.

“Clearly something is wrong,” Knicks All-Star guard Jalen Brunson said.

Hart retreated to the corner of the visiting team’s bench inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse, standing and conferring with the athletic training staff. He was back on the ground after just two minutes, then raced up the floor to collect a loose ball in his trademark style, skipping a pass to Donte DiVincenzo in the right corner while sprawled on his back. But Hart held his center during every slowdown in the frenetic pace of the match. Indiana drove to the open floor after stops and even Knicks baskets. The Pacers lived in the lane all evening, building a 23-point lead in the fourth quarter by the time New York ruled Hart out of Game 6 due to what the team described as a “stomach ache,” as Indiana exited 116-103. victory.

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson, 11, drives to the basket past Indiana Pacers forward Obi Toppin, left, during the first half of Game 6 in their second-round NBA playoff series, Friday, May 17, 2024, in Indianapolis.  (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) is surrounded by the Pacers during the first half of Game 6 on Friday in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The Knicks’ string of injuries has been as inextricable a part of this playoff run as their stubborn play over New York remains one win away from the next round that has eluded this franchise for two decades. Now Game 7 is set for 3:30 PM ET at Madison Square Garden, and a key question looms between the contests: Will that be enough time for Hart to recover, let alone return to form? “I think you can add it to the list,” Bronson said.

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New York is already down three starters, with Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson sidelined due to season-ending surgeries, and OG Anunoby suffering from a strained hamstring that has left the Knicks without a trade deadline pick since Game 2. Anunoby made the trip with New York to Indiana for Game 6, though Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau only revealed that the 6-foot-7 forward is progressing “day by day.” When asked what chance Anunoby had of qualifying for the deciding match at the most famous arena in the world, Thibodeau deadpanned: “Whatever the doctors say.”

Hart’s effectiveness, or lack thereof, was on full display as the Pacers’ impressive addition, Anunoby’s former Raptors teammate, Pascal Siakam, erupted in his best game of the series, leading Indiana with 25 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. Hart didn’t have an answer for Siakam’s combination of spin and probing drives. Siakam commanded a lot of attention, and Myles Turner was able to sneak down the lane late in the second quarter to unleash a ferocious hammer over the Knicks defense.

New York then tried a combination of centers Isaiah Hartenstein and Precious Achiuwa on Siakam, but he kept drilling mid-range jumpers. Thibodeau said the switch was due to Hart’s injury and an attempt to keep Siakam guessing. “I don’t think you give him a steady one-person diet,” Thibodeau said.

Credit Indiana’s young, unproven roster for responding while facing the wall. During the previous game, the Knicks found 29 more shot attempts after dominating the glass, outscoring the Pacers 53-29 overall and shutting them out by a 62-36 point margin. In Game 6, Indiana turned that around completely, outscoring New York 62-38 from within and winning the rebounding battle.

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About the only smooth start for the Knicks belonged to Deuce McBride, the scrappy backup point guard whom Thibodeau inserted into the starting lineup for Game 5 to chase down Tyrese Haliburton. McBride scored 11 points in the first half, nailing his high-curving shot with ease, blocking Brunson and rushing to the perimeter with Haliburton having too much space to cover on the defensive end.

But this action did little to free Bronson. He looked like a mess from the jump, leaving free throws on the table and missing his patented pivots. He left the layup shortly after pinning his defender on his hip, seemingly more focused on blowing a whistle than finishing the bucket. At his left elbow, he was doing the “Do Si” dance with the larger Aaron Nesmith, a dance that only directly caused Bronson to lose his balance. Brunson was just 2 of 13 in the first half with 5 points after being chased down by Nesmith, Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard or reserve TJ McConnell.

“They used three different defenders on him, all different sizes,” Hartenstein said. “They’ve been loading, so I think we’ve got to do a better job of making Jalen look easier.”

“They did a great job throughout the series of edits, showing me a different look,” Bronson said. “I should do a better job of reading it.”

DiVincenzo tussled with Nembhard at the end of the first half to draw a technical pass. The Knicks’ ensuing free throw wasn’t awarded until the start of the third quarter, giving Brunson a free trip to the foul line. He swapped the shoes from a pair of lime green “Grinch” Kobe low-tops to an all-white ensemble. If there’s a silver lining to be found, it’s that it’s Brunson who has found his groove after that trip to the strip. He started 4 of 4 in the second half and finished the third quarter 6 of 9 for 14 points, the final attempt being a spike at the buzzer that had little chance with McConnell covering him completely.

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McConnell has been an inspiration to the Pacers, who are now 6-0 at home in the playoffs. He contributed 15 more points and dished out 4 assists in 16 minutes off the bench, and at one point he raced into the open floor, drew a foul on Hart and scored the bucket anyway, which prompted him to return to the Pacers’ bench and shout: “ I “I’m a dog!”

The energy picks up when McConnell takes the court, revving up an already frenetic Pacers offense even with Haliburton, Indiana’s All-Star engine, sitting out. That’s the extra powder the Pacers will surely need to overcome a raucous Manhattan crowd above Penn Station on Sunday. McBride told reporters that he thought Hart was feeling better after the match, but his status would of course hang over this final series.

“If his leg didn’t fall off, I would probably say he probably would have played,” Hartenstein said.

“I assume he’s playing,” Bronson said. “It’s Game 7.”

The Knicks powered through the final minute of their final regular-season game to earn the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference’s postseason bracket, earning the right to host Indiana instead of fighting for their lives in enemy territory. With or without Hart, they know the familiar atmosphere won’t be enough to entice Boston for a shot at the NBA Finals.

“It’s definitely something we’ve fought for, to have home-field advantage for as long as possible,” Brunson said. “But it is not given just because we are at home.”