2024 Playoffs: East Semifinal | Knicks (2) vs. Pacers (6)

Knicks-Pacers: 5 takeaways as Jalen Brunson wills Knicks to Game 2 win

Despite a foot injury, New York's point guard steps up with 29 points on a night New York has to rally while dealing with injuries.

Full Focus: Knicks' dominant 3rd quarter sparks Game 2 win over Pacers.

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NEW YORK — The legend of Jalen Brunson continues to grow.

The New York Knicks point guard scored “just” 29 points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, ending his streak of four straight games with 40-plus. But he was still the hero, returning from a foot injury to score several big buckets down the stretch of his team’s 130-121 victory over the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

The Knicks have now trailed six of their eight playoff games by double digits, and they’ve won five of those six. Seven of their eight games have been within five points in the last five minutes, they’re playing a short rotation (that gets shorter every day) and they keep finding ways to win.

Here are some notes, quotes, numbers and film as the Knicks took a 2-0 series lead.

1. Brunson returns and burns the Pacers

The Knicks haven’t had Julius Randle since late January and Bojan Bogdanovic since Game 4 of the first round. On Tuesday, they announced that Mitchell Robinson is out 6-8 weeks with continuing issues in his left ankle.

They were only playing seven guys on Wednesday, but two more went down with injuries. Feeling pain in his left foot, Brunson checked out with 3:32 left in the first quarter and with the Knicks up seven.

With their star in the locker room for the rest of the first half, the Knicks’ lead disappeared and they trailed by seven at halftime.

The reaction wasn’t quite like that for Willis Reed before Game 7 of the 1970 Finals, but when Brunson walked out onto the floor before the third quarter and shot jumpers under the watchful eye of Knicks trainer Anthony Goenaga, he heard “M-V-P!” chants from the Garden crowd.

“This place has been nothing but special for me,” Brunson said when asked about the reaction. “I appreciate everything they do. It was really cool to hear, but I just knew I had to get my mind in the right place to figure out how I was gonna attack the second half.”

While he seemed to defer to his teammates a bit early in the third quarter, Brunson scored 24 points in those 24 second-half minutes.

T.J. McConnell pressured him, and he answered the challenge:

Jalen Brunson basket vs. T.J. McConnell

He was forced into late-clock situations and came up with big, one-on-one buckets:

Jalen Brunson turnaround jumper

The Pacers ran double-teams at him, he made the right plays and the Knicks got great shots:

Donte DiVincenzo corner 3-pointer

Brunson’s 32 1/2 minutes were (obviously) the fewest he’s played in the postseason. But he made the most of them.

“The mental toughness piece is so important,” Thibodeau said of his point guard. “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.”

2. Anunoby goes down as Knicks’ attrition continues

Though Brunson played the entire second half, the Knicks’ injury issues were not over. Late in the third quarter, OG Anunoby hobbled off the floor, missing the final 15 1/2 minutes of the game with a sore left hamstring.

Precious Achiuwa started the day as the backup center with Robinson out, and he finished it as the starting power forward alongside Isaiah Hartenstein.

When both Anunoby and Randle were hurt in late January, Thibodeau initially went to a starting lineup with that frontline. But the Knicks were outscored by 2.7 points per 100 possessions in 342 regular-season minutes with Achiuwa and Hartenstein on the floor together. And Achiuwa was eventually replaced by Miles McBride in the starting lineup.

If Anunoby is unavailable for Game 3 on Friday (Thibodeau didn’t have an update on him after Game 2), Thibodeau will have a decision to make and he’ll likely have to go deeper in his rotation. Alec Burks was dusted off for 44 seconds when Brunson was in the locker room on Wednesday.

Inside the NBA: How short bench could come back to bite Knicks.

3. These are not the ’90s Knicks and Pacers

These two teams faced each other in the playoffs six times in eight years from 1993-2000. In those 2000 playoffs, the Knicks’ most efficient offensive performance was 98 points on 88 possessions (111 per 100).

On Wednesday, the Knicks scored 130 points on 92 possessions (141 per 100), the most efficient performance for any team in the last two postseasons.

Brunson’s biggest impact comes on offense, but offense wasn’t the problem as they were outscored by 14 points in those 15 1/2 minutes he was out. The problem was that they were getting torched on the other end of the floor, with the Pacers finishing the half with 73 points on 49 possessions (149 per 100).

The Knicks didn’t exactly turn into the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second half, but they got enough stops to pull out the victory. There was a great defensive possession in the third quarter when their rotations were sharp and Anunoby blocked an Aaron Nesmith layup attempt. And with the Knicks up two midway through the fourth, Donte DiVincenzo made a great effort to deflect a Tyrese Haliburton pass.

The Pacers and Knicks now rank first and third in offensive efficiency in these playoffs, both having scored more than 120 points per 100 possessions over their eight games.

“I don’t really care if it’s high-scoring, low-scoring, medium-scoring,” Thibodeau said. “The bottom line is you gotta find a way to win. That’s the most important thing and you can win games a lot of different ways. We know we’re not going to be able to shoot the ball like that every night, so when we’re not, we got to be able to win with our defense, our rebounding, our hustle.

4. Haliburton breaks out on offense, breaks down on defense

The biggest reason the Pacers had their second-most efficient performance of the playoffs was Haliburton recovering from a tough Game 1. Two nights after scoring just six points (his third-lowest output of the season), the All-Star led all scorers with 34 on 11-for-19 shooting, including 7-for-11 from 3-point range.

Seven of his 11 buckets were assisted as the Knicks continue to have trouble keeping up with the Pacers’ ball and player movement.

Tyrese Haliburton 3-pointer

It was the Haliburton from the first half of the season (his highest-scoring game since Nov. 30), before hamstring and back issues affected his production.

“Tyrese is a great competitor,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said afterward. “He responds to all kinds of challenges like this, time and time again over the last two years. I’m proud of his response tonight, but it’s not just about one guy breaking out of a scoring thing. It’s about all of us. Everybody’s just going to have to do more going forward.”

They’re especially going to have to do more on defense because Game 2 was reminiscent of the Pacers’ defense from the first half of the season (before the addition of Pascal Siakam gave them a boost). Haliburton was often the culprit as the Indiana defense broke down.

The Knicks were often able to get layups off back-door cuts on Wednesday. Some of that was the Pacers being aggressive defensively, trying to deny on the perimeter.

And some of it was Haliburton losing his man:

Josh Hart assist to Donte DiVincenzo

The Pacers and their opponents combined to score 119.1 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, the highest combined mark in the league. It’s been higher (120.7) in the playoffs because the way this team plays elicits high efficiency on both ends of the floor.

5. Pacers’ bench continues to play big … but not late

Despite Haliburton’s breakthrough on Wednesday, the Pacers’ starting lineup has been outscored by 32 points in its 42 minutes in this series, allowing the Knicks to score an amazing 116 points on just 79 possessions (147 per 100). The score of the third quarter was 23-8 in favor of New York before Carlisle made his first second-half sub.

But the Indiana bench has been terrific, with McConnell totaling 28 points and 15 assists (with just three turnovers) over the two games and Ben Sheppard and Obi Toppin combining to shoot 9-for-15 from 3-point range.

But Carlisle continues to return to his starters at the end of these close games. And the Pacers have now allowed the Knicks to score 26 points on 18 clutch possessions.

We’ll see if things change as the series moves to Indianapolis for Game 3 on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X. 

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