How the Knicks' special chemistry helped them turn back the 76ers

PHILADELPHIA — Josh Hart’s magnetic palms secured the basketball one last time against the 76ers on Thursday night. A last-ditch heave from Buddy Hield clanked off the backboard like a missile seeking Hart’s possession, his 14th and final rebound as the buzzer sounded on New York’s Game 6 victory over Joel Embiid and Co. The Knicks’ scrappy swingman — the 6-foot-4 giant on the glass who’s averaged 12.3 boards per game these playoffs — then waved the crowd goodbye, his 3-pointer with 24.4 seconds to play proving to be the decisive dagger in New York’s 118-115 survival and 4-2 series win. Hart would keep that game ball close, cradled to his hip, strutting around the court through postgame pleasantries with Philadelphia players and personnel.

Jalen Brunson found Hart amid the sea of cameras and half hugs, slinking his arm around his former college teammate, his former college roommate, who helped New York draw sixth-seeded Indiana in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs — which begins Monday night at Madison Square Garden. Brunson was magical once again on this South Philly floor, where he and Hart and fellow Villanova product Donte DiVincenzo once played Big East home games. And so, after Brunson hung another 41 points and 12 assists on the Sixers — to become just the seventh player in NBA history to record 40-plus in three straight postseason games — he corralled Hart’s sinewy shoulders, and Brunson pointed up at the two navy banners hanging from the rafters denoting their pair of NCAA championships for the Wildcats from 2016 and 2018.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - MAY 02: Kelly Oubre Jr. #9 of the Philadelphia 76ers and Josh Hart #3 of the New York Knicks react after Hart's three point basket during the fourth quarter of game six of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on May 02, 2024 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Josh Hart of the Knicks follows through after his clutch 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter of Game 6 Thursday night in Philadelphia. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Brunson would continue to the sideline from there, a headset from TNT waiting to beam his interview back to Studio J in Atlanta. Through the questions from Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, Brunson’s eyes kept locking onto those blue banners, including the third that honors Villanova’s title from 1985. All while Knicks president Leon Rose kept his emotional gaze trained onto the sensational point guard who’s uplifting this New York franchise Rose was tasked with steering back to relevance.

His black low tops positioned in front of the visitors’ bench, Rose fought back tears as he scanned across the hardwood. They’ve all frequented this stadium. Rose once walked this arena’s back corridors as Allen Iverson’s agent. Rose played high school ball just over the Ben Franklin Bridge. The gymnasium where his name's written on the school's Hall of Fame wall lies just down the road from the very JCC where, decades later, Brunson would hoist shots with friends after school. Now shaking his head, fighting back tears, Rose’s face brightened as Brunson wrapped up his responsibilities, and then Rose wrapped the 27-year-old superstar with a huge embrace. They turned before a roaring cohort of Knicks fans who infiltrated enemy territory and marched down to the locker room, toward New York’s second consecutive postseason with at least one series to their name — the franchise’s first stretch of such success since 2000.

“The chemistry and communication we have in that locker room, on and off the court, it’s special,” Brunson said.

Maybe that connectivity was the special ingredient that ultimately separated New York from its worthy adversary. After six games and one overtime, the Knicks advanced past the Sixers with a one-point scoring differential across the entire dogged series. Before this final clash tipped, Philadelphia head coach Nick Nurse was asked what themes he believes have decided every precious game of this matchup, and the former champion had nothing concrete to offer. “I’ve decided nothing matters,” Nurse said. “They kill us on the glass, it goes down to the buzzer. We kill them on the glass, it goes down to the buzzer. Joel scores 50, it goes down to the buzzer. Brunson scores 47, it goes down to the buzzer.”

Sure enough, this game was knotted in the final minute. Philadelphia sent both Nic Batum and Kelly Oubre trapping toward Brunson’s handle right around when half of that minute had expired. “They blitzed,” Hart said. He had a perfect view from above the key, but Hart’s first instinct was to skip any pass from Brunson over to DiVincenzo — who’d erupted for his best game of the series, scoring 23 points on 5-of-9 shooting from deep.

Maybe that was some subconscious pause to allow someone else, some other Wildcat, to swing fortune in favor of New York. Hart’s two missed free throws at the end of regulation in Game 5 could have given the Knicks a large enough lead to stave off Philadelphia and end this thing earlier. “That loss sat on my shoulders,” Hart said. “I had a day and a half to think about that. It’s really all I thought about.”

Yet the Sixers didn’t rotate his direction. Like in Game 1, Philadelphia stranded Hart on an island, nothing but an ocean between him and the rim, and Hart delivered once again. After his brief hesitation, there was no other option. “One second of, ‘OK, I saw how they were doing it, not rotating,’” Hart said, “and I was able to get my feet set and just shoot an uncontested, open shot.”

Hart played over 46 minutes Thursday. He sat less than 20 minutes all series. “Josh is never close to coming out,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. Did the head coach ever really consider giving him a long breather, even after Hart tweaked his ankle in the first half? “It was a passing thought. I let it pass,” Thibodeau said.

New York has passed its first test of this postseason. They have outlasted one of the most arduous first-round battles in recent memory. They couldn’t even enjoy this win until midnight, as Thibodeau typically permits his players. By the time they broke huddle in the locker room, Thursday had already turned into Friday, and the Knicks were on to the Pacers.