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Brunson tops 40 again as Knicks blow out Pacers

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NEW YORK — Fans at Madison Square Garden saw a shift in their team a little more than halfway through the first quarter Tuesday, when the Knicks began an 18-7 run against the Pacers to close the period.

But guard Miles McBride, whose insertion into New York’s starting lineup gave the team a tangible lift, said the boost took place far before that.

“I think the shift started in the locker room in Indiana. We talked about it and knew we had to respond,” McBride said, referring to the players-only meeting the Knicks held after their embarrassing 32-point loss in Game 4 on Sunday.

The result was the polar opposite in Game 5: The Knicks drilled Indiana 121-91 to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. They’ll travel to Indianapolis with an opportunity to close out the Pacers and advance to their first Eastern Conference finals since 2000 on Friday night.

Jalen Brunson shook off an awful Game 4 showing to again star for the Knicks, notching 44 points and seven assists. It marked his fifth time scoring at least 40 in the postseason, giving him the most such performances in a single postseason since LeBron James had eight back in 2018.

The outburst was notable in part because of how the Pacers opted to defend Brunson. They sent a whopping 28 double-teams at the guard over the course of Game 5 — eight more than Indiana had used against him in the first four contests combined. The strategy, helpful in Game 4 when the Knicks started two big men, wasn’t effective Tuesday because of the amount of space Brunson and the Knicks had to work with as a result of McBride’s addition to the starting five. McBride set 23 on-ball screens — nearly triple his prior career high, according to Second Spectrum data.

“[McBride] definitely helps us with spacing because he has the ability to make shots and also can make plays when people rotate over to him. He was in that position today, and he played really well,” Brunson said of the third-year guard, who replaced power forward Precious Achiuwa in the starting five and had 17 points and four assists while holding Indiana star Tyrese Haliburton in check. (Achiuwa was replacing OG Anunoby, who has missed the past three games of the series with a hamstring strain. The Knicks also are playing without All-NBA forward Julius Randle, backup center Mitchell Robinson and backup wing Bojan Bogdanovic.)

There was data to suggest that McBride might play well as a starter, as the wildly shorthanded Knicks were fantastic during the regular season when he played alongside Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Josh Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein. The Knicks beat opponents by 104 points — their best raw plus/minus of any five-man grouping — in just 172 minutes of work with those five players on the court during the campaign.

Haliburton said he and his teammates anticipated McBride might get the start after the Game 4 rout in Indiana. What they didn’t see coming was the Knicks dominating the glass the way they did.

“They made a lot of shots today. But with the ones they did miss, they grabbed the offensive rebounds,” said Haliburton, who finished with just 13 points and five assists in Game 5 after averaging nearly 30 points in Games 2, 3 and 4.

New York, the NBA’s best offensive-rebounding club in the regular season, made its presence felt on the glass. The Knicks had more offensive rebounds (12) through one half than the Pacers had total rebounds (11). And with 4:16 remaining in the game — at which point the Pacers pulled their starters for good — Hartenstein and Hart had as many rebounds as a duo (28) as Indiana had as a team. For the game, New York outscored Indiana 26-9 in second-chance points.

“With their smaller lineup, intuitively you would think it gives us a better chance to do well on the boards. But their overall level of fight in this game was superior to what ours was. And that’s the bottom line,” said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who called his team’s effort “embarrassing.”

The Knicks broke open the game for good in the second half, when they embarked on a 17-0 run in the third period. DiVincenzo jammed home a Brunson miss in the midst of that run, igniting the Garden crowd.

On the way back down the floor following that play, DiVincenzo got tangled with Pacers big man Myles Turner, prompting Turner to confront the Knicks guard. The brief dust-up and profane exchange resulted in each player getting a technical foul.

After the game, DiVincenzo called out Turner, saying, “They’re trying to be tough guys, and that’s not their identity — nobody is going to fight in the NBA. … You’re not a tough guy.”

For the young Pacers, who haven’t been at this stage before, just how much toughness they have left might determine whether there’s a Game 7 to be played back in New York on Sunday.

“There’s no excuses, but all the guys on our roster, I believe it’s the first time they’ve been in a Game 5, tied 2-2, going on the road. So you learn a lot in those situations very quickly,” Carlisle said. “So this is a different circumstance, and as a playoff series, it’s going to get harder and harder.”

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