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Jalen Brunson Played Like an MVP in Game 5. Tyrese Haliburton … Well, Played.



For a picture of pure determination, look no further than a freeze-frame of New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson bounding into the lane, with Ben Sheppard on his left hip, Myles Turner and Pascal Siakam converging, and Andrew Nembhard charging straight at him—a virtual blanket of yellow jerseys and several yards of wingspan obstructing every conceivable path between Brunson’s hands and the hoop high above him.

The ball, dear reader, found the hoop—even on replays, it’s unclear how—on a wild reverse layup that fell through the net as Brunson fell to the Madison Square Garden floor late Tuesday night. It wasn’t the most consequential basket of Brunson’s 44-point evening, just the most emblematic—of Brunson’s steely demeanor, of the Knicks’ unbreakable spirit, and of the contrast between two franchise stars in a pivotal game of an increasingly tense playoff series.

Brunson drew the and-1, hit the free throw, and pushed the Knicks’ lead to 106-86 with about eight minutes to go, as “M-V-P” chants echoed through the Garden. Thirteen seconds later, Tyrese Haliburton answered with … a traveling turnover. Three minutes after that, Haliburton was on the bench, his night over, the game out of reach, and the Pacers staring at a 3-2 deficit and potential elimination as soon as Friday.

A smattering of “Tyrese sucks!” chants broke out in the upper-upper deck—rude, but hard to rebut on a night when the Pacers’ young star came up empty, over and over. On a night that could define the series and his season, Haliburton took just nine shots, made five of them, and finished with 13 points and five assists.

But it wasn’t the numbers that were most damning. It was the lack of any imprint on the game, an absence of assertiveness or clear intent—the traits you generally expect from an All-Star point guard who could be named All-NBA next week and who, incidentally, was named to the U.S. Olympic team over Brunson. There were stretches Tuesday night when Haliburton drifted on the perimeter, seeming detached from the action, or passed up shots, or simply settled for jumpers instead of driving into the teeth of the defense. His explanation for it all was just as ineffectual.

“I just got to do a better job of being aggressive,” Haliburton said, wearing a dark “INDY” hoodie with the hood up, as if to shield himself. “I said the same thing after Game 1. It’s more on me than it is on what anybody else is doing. So, you know, I’ll fix that next game.”

To his point, Haliburton was similarly impotent in Game 1 (six points), did say something similar afterward, and did rally impressively, averaging nearly 30 points over the next three games, including two victories in Indianapolis. Which made his Game 5 face-plant all the more befuddling. The Pacers are not flush with offensive creators; if Haliburton isn’t attacking, their offense stalls out. He has to attack more; he has to shoot more than nine times. That’s the burden that comes with NBA stardom. The greats understand this intuitively. They don’t pass up shots; they demand them, as Haliburton essentially did the prior three games. He’d found his stride and his swagger in the series, hit his shots, and talked his trash. And then … nothing.

As to the hows and whys, Haliburton said, “I don’t really have an answer for you there. I gotta watch the film to really see where I can be better. I think it’s part of the ebbs and flows of every game, and sometimes you’re just trying to feel the game out. And I just didn’t do what I’m supposed to today. And I’ll be better in Game 6.”

Haliburton and the Pacers have been at their best when they push the tempo and score in transition—opportunities they couldn’t manufacture as consistently Tuesday because of defensive lapses and another night spent watching the Knicks dominate the boards (a 53-29 advantage, including 20 offensive rebounds).

“Very embarrassing,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said, repeating it for emphasis.

It’s worth remembering that Haliburton is just 24 years old, in just his second full season as a leading man—with all the pressure and responsibility that entails—and playing in his first postseason, his first second round, his first 2-2 tie, his first Game 5 at the Garden.

It’s worth remembering, too, that the young Pacers were never supposed to be here, at least not this soon. They were projected as a borderline playoff team last fall. But that was before Haliburton shined in the in-season tournament and became a breakout star, before the Pacers picked up another All-Star (Siakam) in the midseason, and before the basketball gods delivered them a banged-up Milwaukee Bucks team with no Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round.

So the Pacers arrived ahead of schedule, perhaps a little unpolished, unfinished, and still learning.

“I feel like that’s something I can reflect on after the playoffs is done,” Haliburton said, though some lessons are already evident. “The importance on a possession-to-possession basis has changed drastically from the regular season. Everything has more limelight on what you’re doing. And I think [bad] plays stick with me more than they probably do in the regular season. … How can we maintain our emotions, and things like that. I think that we’re human beings, we’re competitors. When things are going good, you know, everybody’s high, everybody’s excited. And when things are going bad, I think we just got to do a better job of coming together as a group and not getting into—I felt we were a little frenzied today.”

This is just the beginning of the Pacers’ journey, and of Haliburton’s rise. Some pratfalls are to be expected. And though no one ever wants to cite injuries as their alibi, it’s worth noting that Haliburton was technically listed as questionable for Game 5, with three separate nagging injuries: lower back spasms, an unrelated lower-back contusion, and a right ankle sprain. He also spent much of the second half of the season coping with a hamstring strain that put a dent in his shooting and production.

It’s all relevant, all valid, all true. But Brunson and the Knicks are banged up, too, and missing multiple rotation players. You couldn’t tell Tuesday night. The crucible of a playoff series is where reputations are made or broken, where stars shine or shrink. Haliburton might have just one game left this spring to find his mojo and change perceptions before facing his long offseason of contemplation.

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