Inside the night Jalen Brunson pulled a Willis Reed to lift the Knicks to an improbable win

NEW YORK — For a man not particularly given to sentiment, the 18 syllables that trickled out of Tom Thibodeau’s mouth might as well have been a love letter.

“He gave us everything he had,” he said. “That's all you can ask of a player.”

The Knicks head coach offered that Spartan highest-honor tribute Wednesday as a sort of elegy for center Mitchell Robinson, who suffered a stress injury to his surgically repaired left ankle, effectively ending his season before the Knicks' 130-121 Game 2 victory. New York was already operating short-handed, having lost forwards Julius Randle and Bojan Bogdanović; losing Robinson, too, meant Thibodeau was down to just seven players he’d entrusted with playing time in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pacers on Monday.

New York scratched out a win in Game 1. But with three Knicks already averaging more than 41 minutes per game in the postseason, and against an Indiana team that goes nine-deep and both plays and gets shots up faster than any team in the NBA, each successive removal of a building block seemed to pose a greater threat to the structural integrity of Thibs’ Jenga tower. At what point would the Knicks finally lose one piece too many, sending the franchise’s best season in nearly a quarter-century crashing down?

For about 15 and a half heart-stopping minutes of game time during Wednesday’s Game 2, it seemed like we’d found our answer.

With just under four minutes to go in the first quarter, Jalen Brunson closed out on a T.J. McConnell drive and promptly developed a bit of a hitch in his giddyup. After an Obi Toppin 3-pointer and the ensuing inbounds pass, Brunson looked over at the Knicks bench and waved for a substitution. This struck Thibodeau as rare.

“Yeah, well, the thing about Jalen: He never asks out of a game,” Thibodeau said. “So, you know, I knew that there was something.”

That something took Brunson — the fifth-place finisher in 2024 NBA MVP voting, the leading scorer in the 2024 NBA playoffs, the first player in NBA history to score 40-plus points and dish five or more assists in four consecutive postseason games — off the Knicks bench and back to the locker room for the balance of the first quarter. A few minutes later, his father, Knicks assistant coach Rick Brunson, also departed the bench.

The radio silence inside Madison Square Garden was deafening.

“And then, when he didn't come back, you know, you just wait to hear from medical, what they say,” Thibodeau said.

What they said made an awful lot of hearts sink: sore right foot, questionable to return. The one guy the Knicks can’t afford to lose — the one who, during the regular season, was the difference between New York scoring like the NBA’s second-best offense and its absolute worst — was now in danger of being lost.

So, by the way, was the game.

The Knicks actually continued to score at a super-efficient clip without Brunson — redirecting more play-initiating responsibility against Indiana’s full-court pressure to Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo, running more of their half-court offense through center Isaiah Hartenstein in dribble handoff actions and benefiting from the most aggressive offensive performance of OG Anunoby’s four-month tenure in Manhattan.

The more pressing issues, though, came on the other end. Indiana’s relentless commitment to cranking up the tempo — pushing the ball down the floor off missed shots, made shots, turnovers and just about anything else that can happen on a basketball court — left the Knicks looking positively adrift:

With All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton putting his imprint on the proceedings by delivering a promised uptick in offensive aggression after a comparatively sedate Game 1, the Pacers scored 37 points on 22 second-quarter possessions against New York — a blistering 168.2 offensive rating for the stanza, with 11 assists on 15 made baskets, just one turnover and six 3-pointers — allowing the visitors to take a 73-63 lead into intermission.

While the Knicks were struggling trying to get a handle on the Pacers’ go-go offense in that second quarter, Brunson was with New York’s training staff, trying to get a handle on whether he could go at all.

Some Knicks didn’t know if they’d get him back.

“We were going in thinking that we weren’t,” Hartenstein said.

They prepared as if they wouldn’t have him.

“I don’t know what we were down at halftime, but we’re in the locker room like, ‘We’re going to win this game, still,’” DiVincenzo said. “‘We’ve got to defend, we’ve got to rebound, limit their second chances, and then play our offense, not get outside of ourselves.’”

Still, though: They held out hope.

“I know that if he can go, he's going to go,” Thibodeau said. “That's who he is.”

“All season long, no matter what is thrown at him, injury bug or whatever, he always bounces back,” DiVincenzo said. “We knew the severity of the game and everything, so everybody knew he was coming back.”

“I had a decision to make,” Brunson said. “And I made a decision.”

Serenaded by nearly 20,000 fans at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, Brunson strode onto the court, took some practice shots, moved around a bit, and decided to give it a go. That he did so 54 years to the day after Willis Reed hobbled out of the tunnel through a torn thigh muscle to spark the Knicks in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals was lost on nobody. (Brunson later acknowledged that he’d already fielded some jokes from teammates about the coincidence.)

As he began to push off and change directions, though, Brunson was thinking less about Knicks history and more about current events.

“I just knew I had to get my mind in the right place to figure out how I was going to attack the second half,” he said.

After a few dip-your-toe-in-the-water possessions where he operated off the ball, Brunson settled on a plan of attack: Take their heads off.

“When he’s out there, there’s a level of calmness — a level of, ‘We’ll get the right shot, every single time,’” DiVincenzo said.

When the Pacers shaded extra help his way or tried to blitz the ball out of his hands, he just calmly hit his release-valve outlet — primarily Hartenstein or Hart — and trusted them to make the next pass or play to keep the possession humming:

“I'm sure Jalen has seen that coverage a thousand times, so they really know what to do,” McConnell said. “They cut and they get it to the guys that they need to, and they made shots out of it.”

And when they played Brunson straight up — primarily with Andrew Nembhard, but really with anybody besides McConnell, who’s been sensational on both ends through two games — he just torched them with the shot-making that’s turned him into one of the most dangerous scorers in the sport:

Brunson joined Hart and DiVincenzo in playing the entire second half on that sore right foot, scoring a point per minute — 24 of his team-high 29 points, on 9-for-16 shooting. If he doesn’t come back, this series is probably headed back to Indiana tied at one. But he did. So it’s not.

“The mental toughness piece is so important,” Thibodeau said. “The ability to get through things. To be at your best when your best is needed, even when you may not be feeling your best. That's who he is. He’s a great leader.”

That leadership might be about to face another test. After scoring 28 points in 28 minutes, Anunoby left the game with 3:27 to go in the third quarter after appearing to injure his left leg on a fast break. The Knicks later ruled him out for the rest of the contest with a sore left hamstring.

Thibodeau didn’t have an update on Anunoby’s status when he met with reporters after the game. If he’s unable to go in time for Friday’s Game 3, Thibodeau will be down to six players he trusts, plus the possibility of a couple of minutes for Alec Burks.

Hart has now played every second of the last 10 quarters the Knicks have played and has gone the distance in four of New York’s eight postseason games. Asked what would change if Anunoby’s unavailable for Game 3, the ever-quotable Hart replied, “I’m playing 48 anyway, dog. Ain’t s*** change.”

DiVincenzo has averaged 45.1 minutes per game over the last three games, shouldering a greater complementary shot creation workload while also guarding All-Star Tyreses (first Maxey, now Haliburton) the length of the floor. Brunson was averaging just under 44 minutes per game in the playoffs before Wednesday and played the final 24 straight on an injured foot.

And yet: It’s the Knicks who are dominating the offensive glass in the second half. It’s the Knicks who are tightening up defensively, allowing nearly 14 fewer points per 100 possessions in the second half than they have in the first. It’s the Knicks who consistently seem to hit first, second and third, and to come away with the loose ball or extra possession they need, exactly when they need it, even when they’re supposed to be exhausted.

“Honestly, it's just the willpower. It seems like they really just wanted it more tonight,” said McConnell, who termed it “frustrating” to see such a tightly curtailed rotation in which everyone’s playing so many minutes still manage to be the aggressor late.

May 8, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) celebrates in the fourth quarter  after scoring against the Indiana Pacers during game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
Jalen Brunson celebrates in the fourth quarter after scoring against the Pacers during Game 2 of the second round. (Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports)

“We just have to try to continue to make things tough on them and get them to exert as much energy as possible,” he said.

Eventually, that has to matter. Eventually, whatever deposits the Pacers can put into the legs of the Knicks will pay dividends, because even tough guys get tired. Eventually, even warriors lose the war of attrition.

Until then, though: You give everything that you have. That’s all you can ask of a player. And you can win a lot of games that way.

“There’s a blueprint here that Thibs has laid out,” DiVincenzo said. “And no matter who is on the court, everybody follows that, and doesn’t go outside of themselves. No matter who’s in the game, we know what we’re looking to get. Any game that we play — as long as we defend and we rebound and we have low turnovers, we can win any game.”

This is who the Knicks are; this is what they believe, and they’ll keep believing it until proven otherwise. The Pacers haven’t been able to dissuade them yet. Neither have the laws of biology, physiology or common sense. After all: What kind of sway does science have over a team that finds the magic in the work?

“Obviously, we wish we were healthy,” Hart said during a postgame interview on MSG. “But when one guy goes down, man, someone else steps up. And we’ve got more than what we need.”