Knicks, Jalen Brunson bounce back for improbable Game 2 win vs. Pacers

NEW YORK — Surrounded by 20,000 people, Jalen Brunson was all alone.

The New York Knicks point guard jogged out from the tunnel as if it were a wormhole. He was early, the first of his teammates to return to the court for the second half of a tight game against the Indiana Pacers. But at the same time, Brunson was late. The mob watching him had awaited his arrival for long enough that Madison Square Garden was tense.

Brunson departed Wednesday’s game near the end of the first quarter because of a foot injury. The building immediately lost its verve. The Knicks’ top player, the man who had just finished fifth in MVP voting earlier that evening, had mysteriously vanished, questionable to return with an ambiguous injury: right foot soreness.

In one moment, the gusto came back. If you could not see Brunson’s emergence from the tunnel, you would have heard it.

He jogged out unperturbed with minutes to go until the start of the third quarter and walked onto the court as the crowd offered a standing ovation, which he did not acknowledge. He strolled to the free-throw line, where Josh Hart greeted him for a second, then let him be. Brunson had work to do.

From then on, Brunson was by himself. He tested out free throws, then stepbacks in the mid-range, then 3s off the dribble, then drives, then back to 3s. Chants of “MVP!” roared from the stands. Brunson, as he often carries himself, appeared unaffected.

“It was really cool to hear,” Brunson said. “But 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.”

Until that moment, it wasn’t clear if Brunson would play again. The All-Star guard had asked out of the game with three and a half minutes to go in the first quarter, an out-of-character move. He said he’s not sure on which play the injury occurred. But he must have been in pain.

“Once I went on the court I was going to give it a go, no matter what,” Brunson said.

With each jumper that he rehearsed, an even more extreme sentiment became obvious. Not only would Brunson play, but there was no chance he would exit again.

Brunson ran for the entire second half on an injured foot, going for 24 points just in the third and fourth quarters, and leading the Knicks to a 130-121 victory in Game 2 of New York’s second-round playoff series against Indianapolis. It now leads the series 2-0.

“He’s a warrior,” Hart said. “We know he wants to be out there. It was great for him to be out there, great for him to finish the game. Hopefully, he’s not too sore tomorrow. But this team has fight. That’s what we’re built off of.”

This is the identity of the Knicks. They are filled with Kool-Aid men — players who burst through walls and are built to take a punch.

They lose Mitchell Robinson for the postseason, as the team announced Tuesday night, and Precious Achiuwa steps in. OG Anunoby hurts a hamstring, as he did on Wednesday, an injury that occurred during his arguably best game since coming to New York more than four months ago, and Hart or Donte DiVincenzo fill the void.

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Donte DiVincenzo, who scored 28 points in Game 2 for the Knicks is defended by Pascal Siakam. (Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

Hart never sits. He’s the first player to go two consecutive playoff games without subbing out since Jimmy Butler in 2013, a situation without any obvious common denominators.

Most importantly, they climbed on the back of Brunson, who finished with 29 points and five assists.

“When he’s out there, there’s a level of calmness,” DiVincenzo said. “We’ll get the right shot every single time. There’s a level of confidence from everybody that we have him on the court with us. Everybody can settle down and play their own game.”

It shows.

The Knicks could have lost this game and shrugged their shoulders afterward.

Brunson missed more than a quarter, as did Anunoby. They didn’t receive much from the bench. Achiuwa improved his defensive performance in the fourth quarter but struggled early. Miles “Deuce” McBride took over as the primary facilitator with Brunson out but could not get the offense going.

But this is what separates a merely solid team from one that places itself only two wins away from the Eastern Conference finals. Sometimes, you have to win the games you’re not supposed to win.

Sometimes, Brunson goes down, but Anunoby takes over in his stead. The 26-year-old had throttled to 28 points before limping to the locker room in the third quarter, holding his left hamstring. Head coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game that he did not have an update on the forward’s status.

Sometimes, a defense traps Brunson, as the Pacers did in the second half, even when it wasn’t clear if Brunson could move at 100 percent capabilities, and the point guard gives up the ball for others to make plays. That’s when Isaiah Hartenstein — who finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists — whipped passes to shooters and cutters. It’s when DiVincenzo — who finished with 28 points, six rebounds and four assists on 6-of-12 3-point shooting — drained jumpers because Indiana’s defenders strayed from him on the arc.

Sometimes, a team has Julius Randle, Bojan Bogdanović and Robinson out for the postseason, then fights through a game where Brunson and Anunoby both miss significant time. In those moments, bench help isn’t as important because Hart — who finished with 19 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists — needs to go to the nearest hospital so doctors can study how a human being acquires limitless energy.

Sometimes, the basketball gods, even as they rip apart a team with injury after injury, also sprinkle in a blessing. Brunson’s return came on the 54th anniversary of Willis Reed’s.

Brunson just scored 40-plus points in four consecutive playoff games. The night the streak snapped was one when he pulled his own Reed.

Sometimes, if it goes on for long enough, a run becomes special.

“There was no doubt in our minds that he’d be back,” DiVincenzo said. “All season long no matter what is thrown at him, injury bug or whatever, he always bounces back.”

(Top photo: Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

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