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

INDIANAPOLIS — Josh Hart does almost everything on the basketball court, except for asking to be taken off the basketball court. He has logged four complete games through the Knicks’ first 11 postseason matchups, and yet, with New York perhaps on the brink of its first Eastern Conference finals appearance since 2000, the alarming sight of Hart motioning toward the sideline, his left hand cupping his rib area, came just over five minutes into the first quarter Friday night.

“Obviously, something must have been wrong,” Knicks All-Star guard Jalen Brunson said.

Hart retreated to the corner of the visiting team’s bench inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse, standing and consulting with athletic training staffers. He’d return to the floor only two minutes later, and then dove on the floor for a loose ball in his trademark fashion, skipping a pass to Donte DiVincenzo in the right corner all while splayed on his back. But Hart was clutching his midsection during every downbeat of the game’s frenetic pace. Indiana burst into the open floor after stops and even Knicks baskets. The Pacers lived in the lane all evening long, building a 23-point fourth quarter lead by the time New York ruled Hart out for the remainder of Game 6 with what the team labeled “abdominal soreness,” as Indiana emerged with a 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 an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Friday, May 17, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) is surrounded by Pacers during the first half of Game 6 on Friday in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The Knicks’ rash of injuries has been an inextricable part of this playoff run as much as their dogged play still has New York one win away from the next round that’s eluded this franchise for two decades. Now Game 7 is set for 3:30 p.m. ET at Madison Square Garden, and one key question looms in between contests: Will that be enough time for Hart to recover, let alone return to form? “I guess you can just add it to the list,” Brunson said.

New York is already down three starters, with Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson sidelined due to season-ending surgeries, and OG Anunoby nursing a strained hamstring that has left the Knicks without their marquee trade-deadline acquisition since Game 2. Anunoby made the trip with New York to Indiana for Game 6, although Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau has only revealed the 6-foot-7 forward is progressing “day-to-day.” When asked what chance Anunoby has to suit up for the decisive matchup back in the world’s most famous arena, Thibodeau deadpanned: “Whatever medical says."

Hart’s effectiveness, or lack thereof, was on full display as the Pacers’ own blockbuster addition, Anunoby’s former Raptors teammate, Pascal Siakam, erupted for his best game of the series, leading Indiana with 25 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Hart had no answer for Siakam’s array of spin moves and probing drives. Siakam commanded so much attention, Myles Turner was able to sneak down the lane late in the second quarter to uncork a vicious hammer atop 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 both due to Hart’s injury and an attempt to keep Siakam guessing. “I don’t think you give him a steady diet of one guy,” Thibodeau said.

Credit to a young, unproven Indiana roster for responding while up against the wall. During the previous matchup, the Knicks found 29 more shot attempts after dominating the glass, outrebounding the Pacers 53-29 overall and obliterating them with a 62-36 points-in-the-paint advantage. In Game 6, Indiana flipped that entirely, outscoring New York 62-38 from the interior and winning the rebounding battle.

About the only smooth start for the Knicks belonged to Deuce McBride, the scrappy backup guard whom Thibodeau inserted into the starting lineup for Game 5 to hound Tyrese Haliburton. McBride had 11 in the first, splashing his high-arcing shot with ease, screening for Brunson and popping to the perimeter with too much ground for Haliburton to cover on the defensive end.

That action did little to free Brunson, however. He seemed out of sorts from the jump, leaving free throws on the table and misfiring on his patented pivoting fadeaways. He left one layup short after pinning his defender on his hip, appearing to focus more on eliciting a whistle than finishing a bucket. At the left elbow, he was do-si-doing with the much larger Aaron Nesmith, a dance that only left Brunson squarely off balance. Brunson was just 2-of-13 in the first half for 5 points after being hounded every dribble by Nesmith or Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard or reserve T.J. McConnell.

“They used three different defenders on him, all different sizes,” Hartenstein said. “They were loading up, so I think we just have to do a better job getting Jalen easier looks.”

“They’ve been doing a great job all series of making adjustments, showing me different looks,” Brunson said. “I gotta do a better job of reading it.”

DiVincenzo got tangled with Nembhard at the end of the half to draw a technical. The ensuing free throw wasn’t awarded to the Knicks until the start of the third quarter, giving Brunson a free trip to the foul line. He’d swapped shoes from a lime green pair of “Grinch” Kobe low tops to an all-white set. If there’s a silver lining to be found, it was Brunson finding his form after that trip to the stripe. He started 4-of-4 in the second half and finished the third quarter 6-of-9 for 14 points, the last attempt a heave at the buzzer that had little chance with McConnell draped all over him.

McConnell has been a revelation for the Pacers, who are now 6-0 at home in the playoffs. He contributed another 15 points and 4 assists in 16 minutes off the bench, at one point barreling into the open floor, drawing a foul on Hart and scoring the bucket anyway, for which he turned back to the Pacers’ bench and howled, “I’m a f***ing dog!”

The energy lifts whenever McConnell takes the court, revving the Pacers’ already frenetic offense even with Haliburton, Indiana’s All-Star engine, taking a seat. That’s the extra powder the Pacers will surely need to overcome a raucous Manhattan matinee crowd above Penn Station on Sunday. McBride told reporters he thought Hart was feeling better postgame, but his status will of course loom over this series finale.

“If his leg’s not falling off,” Hartenstein said, “I’d probably say that he’d probably play.”

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

The Knicks clawed through the final minute of their final regular-season game to claim the No. 2 seed in this Eastern Conference postseason bracket, earning the right to host Indiana instead of battling for their lives in enemy territory. With or without Hart, they know that familiar setting won’t be enough to simply draw Boston for a chance at the NBA Finals.

“It’s definitely something we fought for, to have home-court advantage as long as we can,” Brunson said. “But it’s not given just because we’re at home.”