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Heart, determination and heavy dose of Jalen Brunson move Knicks to brink of conference finals

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No Julius Randle. No OG Anunoby. No Bojan Bogdanovic. No Mitchell Robinson.

The New York Knicks are down four rotational players – two starters (one an All-Star and the other an All-Defensive selection) and two key reserves.

And the Knicks, sutured together by heart, determination and a heavy dose of Jalen Brunson, are up 3-2 against the Indiana Pacers after taking Game 5 121-91 in another spirited night at Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks crushed the Pacers, putting up 69 points and shooting 54.7% in the first half and holding the Pacers’ high-powered offense to 43 points in the second and third quarters. Brunson scored a game-high 44 points.

Yes, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is playing his starters big minutes and if you want to get stuck in a rabbit hole, google “Tom Thibodeau starters minutes.” But to his defense, he has four key players missing right now, and he doesn’t have much choice if he wants to win this series and get the Knicks to the conference finals for the first time since 2000.

As is, he uses a seven-man rotation, using Precious Achiuwa and Alec Burks off the bench. Achiuwa played in just two games in the first round against Philadelphia, and Burks didn’t play at all against the 76ers.

Still, the Knicks are getting it done in Thibodeau fashion. Whoever is on the court, plays hard. You can say lots of things about Thibodeau and people have. The Athletic conducted an anonymous player survey asking, “Which current coach, aside from your own, would you least want to play for?” Thibodeau was the, ahh, winner.

But he’s a strong tactician and motivator with a strong coaching staff, and the players who believe in him, really believe in him and play the way he wants to get those minutes.

The contributions came in different ways Tuesday. The Knicks outworked the Pacers, scoring 26 second-chance points on 20 offensive rebounds. Isaiah Hartenstein had seven points, 17 rebounds – 12 offensive rebounds – and five assists, Josh Hart had 18 points and 11 rebounds, and Miles McBride scored 17 points.

Donte DiVincenzo missed all six of his 3-point attempts and had just eight points but contributed with seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and one block.

Burks was not part of the rotation when the playoffs began. But circumstances dictated he get minutes. He had 20 points in New York’s Game 4 loss but added a necessary 18 points (5-for-8 on 3-pointers) in Game 5.

The Knicks had two key stretches that defined the game. A 17-5 Knicks run after the Pacers built a 20-14 lead put New York ahead 31-25 and the Knicks just opened it up from there. In the third quarter, Indiana cut the Knicks’ lead to 70-63, and New York scored 19 of the game’s next 20 points for an 89-64 advantage. The Pacers went seven minutes, two seconds without a made field goal.

It helps to have Brunson, who is one of the star’s in the 2024 NBA playoffs. An All-Star for the first time this season and a lock to make his first All-NBA team this season, Brunson has scored at least 30 points in six playoff games, including 40-plus five times. He had a playoff-career high 47 against Philadelphia in the first round.

Brunson is difficult to defend – no matter the size, physicality and double-teams the Pacers send his way. And he’s such a clever drawer of fouls, it has the NBA’s attention. That wasn’t an issue in Game 5. He went to the line just seven times. He made 18-of-33 shots – 7-of-9 in the second quarter when he had 18 points as the Knicks built a 15-point halftime lead.

He had a personal 7-0 run, pushing New York’s lead to 106-86 after the Pacers had cut the lead to 12. Knicks fans chanted “MVP, MVP” when he scored his 40th, 41st and 42nd points on an and-one three-point play.

How long can the Knicks keep it going? For Game 6 Friday (ESPN), they go to Indianapolis where the Pacers won Game 3 and Game 4, and a Game 7 Sunday at Madison Square Garden is a possibility.

The Knicks will play a game anywhere. Rucker Park. The Cage downtown among the hipsters and hot dining spots. Hinkle Fieldhouse or Madison Square Garden.

And the Pacers can’t play like they did Tuesday to have a chance. Not against the strong-minded Knicks.

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