How the Knicks found a way to steal Game 2 against a Sixers team that now must regroup

NEW YORK — Among the many talents packed into his titanic frame, it appears Isaiah Hartenstein has a rather gargantuan gift for understatement.

“There was a lot going on, to be honest,” the Knicks center said after New York survived Game 2 — and there really is no other word for it, or at least, no descriptor more accurate — to take a 2-0 lead on the 76ers in a physical, intense and thrilling best-of-seven opening-round series.

That, friends, is an exceedingly restrained and sober summation of this:

Jalen Brunson — he of the 15-for-54 shooting line through the first 95 and a half minutes of this series — tries to drive on opposite number Kyle Lowry, only to wind up on the ground in a heap. Once the ball comes loose to Donte DiVincenzo, Brunson gets up and sprints to the corner for a relocation 3-pointer; he has to give a hard-charging Tyrese Maxey a pump-fake and side-step just to be able to get it off, and watches it bounce hard off the rim and go straight up … before falling gently through the net, drawing the Knicks within two, and winnowing what must have been roughly 4 billion synapses firing in his brain down to one single thought.

“Get a steal,” Brunson said after the game. “Do whatever you gotta do to get a steal. Find a way.”

The way: Teaming with Josh Hart and draping themselves all over Maxey in a shoving/clutching/grabbing baseline tightrope walk that ended with the Sixers’ All-Star point guard — who was a game-time decision due to illness, and who wound up playing 44 tough-as-nails minutes — unable to hold onto Lowry’s inbounds pass.

“I just tried to grab the ball,” Maxey said. “I mean, I’m just trying to get the ball, throw it inbounds. It was hard for me to catch it. I had to sweep through, it comes out, I jump up there and get the ball again. Tried my best.”

His efforts ended with both him and the ball on the deck. Hart — the kind of player that Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau says “gives the team toughness, real toughness” and just “makes things happen” — came away with the loose ball and fired it out to DiVincenzo, waiting all alone on the left wing, waiting for his chance to be the hero …

… and he scudded it off the back of the rim.

“It felt like s**t I missed the first one, to be completely honest,” DiVincenzo said.

He got to call it “the first one,” though, because — on a night where Philly had mostly cleaned up the box-out woes that contributed to the Knicks recovering a monstrous 51% of their own shots in their Game 1 win — nobody in red got a body on our 7-foot understatesman. Like Brunson, he found his thought process filed down to a fine, sharp point.

“Go get the ball. Go get the ball,” Hartenstein later told reporters. “I mean, it was just kind of like instinct. I feel like sometimes when you just — as weird as it sounds, stop thinking and just let your game play, then you’ll get stuff like that.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 22: Donte DiVincenzo #0 of the New York Knicks reacts after a three-point shot during the second half against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Two of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 22, 2024 in New York City. The Knicks won 104-101. 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)
Donte DiVincenzo's 3-point shot with 13 seconds left in the game put the Knicks up for good. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

“I was really, really, really, really, really hoping that Isaiah got it,” said DiVincenzo, who bounced back from a Game 1 that saw him lose playing time to backup guard Deuce McBride by scoring 19 points with four rebounds, three assists and two steals. “Because I knew that, [with] the rotation of everything, I was going to get a second look. So, thank God he got the offensive rebound.”

“You know, we practice that every day — dagger 3s and second-chance 3s,” he later added. “So, once OG [Anunoby] got it, just got my feet set and, you know, live with the results. Trust the work that I put in.”

Thibodeau is fond of saying that the magic lies in that work; on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, it produced a shot that ranks among the most magical in the last 30 years of Knicks basketball.

DiVincenzo’s do-over cash-out — which elicited an extremely rare double-bang from Mike Breen, just to underscore the gravity of the situation — put New York up by one. With 13.1 seconds still on the clock, though, Philadelphia had a chance to turn all the elation coursing through MSG to nothing more than ashes in Knick fans’ mouths.

Maxey, who’d scored 15 of his game-high 35 points in the final frame, took the ball in the backcourt, building up a head of steam with which to attack a Knicks squad that had scarcely been able to stay in front of him for even a split second in the second half. A back-screen from Joel Embiid caught a backpedaling Anunoby, giving Maxey a mile-long runway to ram the ball straight down Hartenstein’s throat. Except …

… Hartenstein’s fourth block of the game preserved the lead. Anunoby’s clutch free throws on the other end put the Knicks up three. A last-chance 3 by Embiid came up wanting, sending the Garden into hysterics — and the 76ers back to Philadelphia in an 0-2 hole.

The Sixers, for their part, are incensed at how they’ve arrived there — specifically about their inability to get a timeout on the fateful inbounds play that ended with DiVincenzo’s dagger.

“The first thing is, obviously, they score, we take a look at getting it in quick,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “We don’t get it in quick. I call timeout. The referee looked right at me, ignored me. It went in to Tyrese, I call timeout again. Then the melee started.”

“Unacceptable,” Embiid said as he sat in the Sixers’ locker room, head down. “Tyrese got fouled a couple of times, we just had the same thing happen against Miami with Tyler Herro. That’s just unacceptable to put us in this situation. That’s f*****g unacceptable to lose a game like this, especially in the playoffs.”

Frustrated over the ungranted timeout and multiple other calls and non-calls, the Sixers reportedly intend to file a grievance with the league office over the officiating in the first two games of the series.

It remains to be seen whether the grievance would have any tangible impact on the actual run of play in the series, which has seen Embiid, even while dragging around a left leg that is clearly less than 100%, score 63 points in 76 minutes, pass the ball well and act as a massive deterrent to Knicks drives in the paint, and Maxey, even while battling an illness that he said left him unable to move on Sunday night and feeling pain and chills, dust every Knicks defender off the bounce en route to 34 points and seven assists per game on 54/40/100 shooting splits.

They have been the two best individual players in this series. (With the possible exception of Hart, who has put up more than 20 points and 10 rebounds in both games, who played the full 48 minutes on Monday — evidently Thibs doesn’t tell jokes — and who, after not making four 3-pointers in a single game during the regular season, has now done it in both Games 1 and 2.) And yet, the Sixers head home down 0-2.

Nurse has favored a tight eight-man rotation, with only Nicolas Batum, Buddy Hield and Paul Reed playing real minutes off the bench. (Cameron Payne got two and a half minutes of burn in Game 1, but did not take off his warmups in Game 2.) Those three reserves have combined to score 17 points on 18 shots in two games — precisely the point production that starting forward Tobias Harris has put up. Kelly Oubre Jr., whose point-of-attack defense on Brunson has been sensational, has 14 points on 14 shots.

Philly’s third-best player in this series, by a considerable margin, has been the 38-year-old Lowry … who went down in what looked to be serious pain on DiVincenzo’s game-winning triple, with his leg bending back awkwardly beneath him under the basket. If he’s at all limited when the stage shifts to Philadelphia for Game 3 on Thursday, the Sixers’ options — for complementary ball-handling, for spot-up shotmaking, for deploying the defensive game plan that’s seen him sag off of Hart to cramp Brunson’s style in the half-court — become even more limited, at precisely the time when they need to be finding their best form to prevent themselves from being pushed to the brink before the postseason is even one week old.

They’re not on the brink yet, though; all New York did was hold serve and protect home court. Loudly, yes. But Philly — with whatever percentage of Embiid they’ve got, with Maxey running roughshod through the Knicks’ perimeter defense, with role players hopefully shooting more comfortably after sleeping in their own beds — can still break back.

"We good. We're gonna win this series,” Embiid said. “We're gonna win this. We know what we've got to fix. We did a better job today, so we're gonna fix it. We're the better team and we're gonna keep fighting."

The Sixers are going to have to, because the Knicks are nothing if not ready to knuckle up — and, unlike wounded Philly, they’re getting contributions from up and down the roster. All five Knicks starters scored in double figures in Game 2, and the bench unit of McBride, Bojan Bogdanović and Mitchell Robinson continued to provide quality minutes.

Outdueling them will require Philly to bring the fight … and if Game 2 taught us anything, it’s that they’ll need to do it for the full 48 minutes.

“I know that I say this tongue-in-cheek, that the writers always think the game is over — I never think the games are over,” Thibodeau said. “And it shows: You can make up ground very quickly. You know, a 3 goes in. You get a steal. You get another three. They miss a couple. And the next thing you know, the game changes. That's how quick it can change.”

And while most of the magic is in the work … maybe some of it comes from someplace else.

“You need good fortune,” Thibodeau added. “Sometimes the ball bounces your way.”