'Find a way': New York's state of mind powers Knicks past Pacers amid controversial ending

NEW YORK — Rick Carlisle entered Monday’s Game 1 with a modest goal.

“They're going to get some,” the Pacers head coach said before the game, discussing the Knicks’ insatiable appetite for collecting their own missed shots. “But we’ve got to keep them off of, you know, crazy historic nights on the offensive boards.”

Indiana managed to do that in the opening game of its second-round series with New York, limiting Tom Thibodeau’s team to just eight offensive rebounds — their second-lowest total of these 2024 NBA playoffs, just a tick above Game 5 against the 76ers. Carlisle’s club also won the turnover battle, committing just seven to the Knicks’ 14, and got up six more field goal attempts than New York — winning the possession battle against a team that’s made that particular battle its calling card over the past couple of seasons.

After a sluggish start to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals that saw them miss 12 of their first 16 shots and look largely stuck in the mud, the Pacers found their rhythm and flow, controlling the game through the early stages of the fourth. And even after watching a nine-point lead slip through their fingers, with another raucous sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd in full throat, they were able to claw back on top on a driving layup by guard Andrew Nembhard, taking a lead into the final minute and a half of the fourth quarter.

“The environment was unreal, and it was what you'd expect, and a lot of plays were made,” Carlisle said after the game. “And I’m proud of a lot of plays that our guys made. They got down four with two and a half minutes to go, and just completely kept their poise and scored two baskets, and then we had the ball, you know? So, you can't overlook the good things that we did.”

But you also can’t overlook the fact that, yet again in these playoffs, all the good things that a Knicks opponent did wound up lying splintered beneath a fusillade of Jalen Brunson midrange turnarounds, Josh Hart lightning strikes and Donte DiVincenzo clutch bombs, all amounting to a 121-117 New York win and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven second-round series.

The story of Game 1, to plenty of observers, will be yet another officiating imbroglio at the World’s Most Famous Arena, with a missed call on a kicked ball and a tough whistle on a moving screen in the final minute both going against Indiana. Carlisle, for his part, said he “[didn’t] want to talk about the officiating,” instead pointing toward several earlier plays — like a gamble for a steal by Aaron Nesmith several minutes earlier that wound up leading to an unconventional four-point play by Hart — as ones that he felt harmed his Pacers just as much, and from which he thinks his young team needs to learn.

“This is a great experience for our guys,” he said. “It comes at a cost. It’s no fun.”

That appears to be the broader story of New York’s postseason, now into its second stanza: It’s really not fun to play against these Knicks. Because no matter what happens in the first 46 minutes, the game’s going to come down to the final two. And when it gets there, and the game boils down to a battle of wills, they’re not going to blink. Their hands won’t shake. And no matter how many minutes they’ve played, how many miles they’ve traveled or body blows they’ve taken, they’re going to make one more play than you can.

“We just find a way,” Brunson said. “No matter what it is, we just give each other confidence to make sure we can get the job done.”

On Monday, what “getting the job done” required included (but was not limited to) a 39-point fourth quarter, three massive defensive possessions by OG Anunoby — and DiVincenzo’s second mammoth crunch-time triple of this postseason.

“Yeah, I saw the help with … I think it was with Nesmith, that was helping off of me,” DiVincenzo said. “Took a couple of steps back, just to make the closeout longer for Tyrese [Haliburton, rotating out of the corner]. And, you know, just shoot it with confidence.”

After going 2-for-7 from the field in the first half, including a pair of missed 3-pointers, DiVincenzo was the first Knick to come out during halftime, getting extra shots up before the rest of his teammates emerged from the locker room. Maybe those shots helped him relocate his rhythm; maybe he was just due to knock down some good looks. Either way: DiVincenzo went on to score 15 points in the third, helping kickstart a Knicks offense that the Pacers had smothered into stagnation and getting himself primed to blow the roof off of MSG when the ball swung his way with the game in the balance.

“Yeah, it felt good,” said DiVincenzo, who finished with 25 points on 10-for-17 shooting. “I believe every shot that I shoot is going in.”

He had a little bit of extra room on that one, though, because of how many of Brunson’s shots had gone in before the final minute of regulation.

“Just as elite of a one-on-one player as there is,” Pacers guard T.J. McConnell said of Brunson, who finished with 43 points on 14-for-26 shooting with six rebounds and six assists. “It’s a collective group effort. But he’s playing at a really high level, so we’ve got to find ways to make it even tougher on him. You’re not going to shut a guy like that down. You’ve just got to make it really difficult."

As they did with Damian Lillard in their Round 1 victory over Milwaukee, the Pacers sought to do so by applying full-court pressure on Brunson, trying to make him work in the backcourt and sap his legs. Once he crossed the timeline, though, Brunson repeatedly worked over Nembhard, Nesmith and McConnell in isolation, taking advantage of the cleaner canvas he had to work with — no more condor-wingspanned Kelly Oubre Jr. and Nicolas Batum on the ball, no more super aggressive gap help from a Pacers team that stays home on shooters as a first principle — to mosey into the midrange against single coverage.

Once Brunson gets to these in-between hot spots, with the groove he’s in right now, you’re in deep, deep trouble; hence the aggressive help at the nail from Nesmith in the final minute. But if there’s one thing that all those Hart 3-pointers against Philadelphia taught us, it’s that when an opponent puts two defenders on Brunson, he’ll just make the simple play, and burn the coverage that way.

“There was one time when we really were in a shift, helping,” Carlisle said. “And then he kicks it to DiVincenzo for a three.”

“And that's what you love about Jalen,” Thibodeau said. “I mean, you could go on and on, every night. And the thing I love about him is, he's all about the team. All he cares about is winning, and he cares about his teammates … in the end, what do we need? We need a big bucket? Whatever it is that we need, then he’ll provide.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 06: Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks shoots over T.J. McConnell #9 of the Indiana Pacers during the first half in Game One of the Eastern Conference Second Round Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 06, 2024 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Jalen Brunson continued his historic playoff run in Game 1 against the Pacers. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

He’s providing it at a historic level right now. Brunson is averaging 36.6 points per game; among players who’ve played at least seven games in a single postseason, only Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Bob McAdoo have ever averaged more.

“He’s the engine,” said Hart, who finished with 24 points on 9-for-13 shooting, a game-high 13 rebounds, eight assists and three steals. “We’re going to go as far as he goes.”

After two rough shooting games against Philadelphia to open this postseason, Brunson has reeled off 39, 47, 40, 41 and 43. He’s the fifth NBA player ever to score 30 or more points and dish five or more assists in five straight playoff games, joining Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. He’s the fourth player ever to score 40 or more in four straight playoff games, joining Jordan, West and Bernard King. And he’s the first player in NBA history to pop for 40 and 5 in four straight postseason affairs.

“It's pretty elite company, you know?” Thibodeau said. “And it’s the impact that it's having on us. They're not, like, empty stats. They're stats that are impacting winning.”

Maybe that’s because of how Brunson’s arriving at them. Hearing the All-Star point guard’s name mentioned in the context of MJ got DiVincenzo geeked up at the podium; Brunson immediately told his friend to stop it and shut up, before demurring and deflecting.

“I'm not going [into games] thinking, ‘I need to score 40,’” Brunson said. “That’s not my mindset at all. My mindset is just to be aggressive — to make plays for myself and for others.”

That mindset — that predilection toward aggression in service of the collective — bleeds through everything the Knicks do. It’s why DiVincenzo, with five fouls in the final minute of a one-possession playoff game, is selling out to blow up offensive actions with the kind of tenacity that can draw an illegal screen call.

“I was gonna say, ‘Eff it’ — excuse my language,” DiVincenzo said. “But like, that's kind of my mentality, is just trying to get a stop. I’m going to continue to fight through ball screens, continue to fight through [dribble handoffs], and live with the results from the physicality.”

Live with the results from the physicality isn’t as snappy a slogan as No quit, all grit, close-knit. But when you watch the way the Knicks play, it fits. It’s there every time Hart, Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson relentlessly attack the offensive glass; every time Hart turns a defensive rebound into a fast break by running HB Dive straight at the rim; every time DiVincenzo cranks up his ball pressure and ball denial on Haliburton, Indiana’s All-Star point guard, who had a quiet six points on six shot attempts in 36 minutes after being listed as questionable with back spasms; and every time Thibodeau bellows on the sideline, imploring his charges to give him more, more, more.

“Yeah, the bottom line is this: it’s just whatever we have to do at the end to find a way to win,” Thibodeau said. “Whether it's taking a charge, diving on the floor, coming up with a loose ball, getting a deflection, getting a blocked shot and then pushing it up the floor.”

And with All-Star power forward Julius Randle and trade-deadline addition Bojan Bogdanović both out for the rest of the season due to injury, “whatever we have to do” includes monster minutes. Hart, who played every second of the game for the third time this postseason, is now averaging a postseason-high 46.6 minutes per game. Brunson’s at 43.7; Anunoby, 41.7.

“You always put the team first. Whatever is necessary to help the team, that's what you got to do,” Thibodeau said. “And right now, that's where we are, and that's where we've been the entire season. We've been short-handed the whole season, and this team has the belief that they can win. So whatever you have, give it to the team, and that's what we're asking everyone to do.”

They’re giving it, and it’s gotten them within three wins of their first Eastern Conference finals berth since 2000. The trick now? Finding even more to give.

“The minutes aren't a factor right now,” DiVincenzo said. “As long as we keep getting wins.”