Jalen Brunson and the Knicks Keep Getting Better This Postseason

To close out the Eastern Conference semifinals series in Game 6, New York will need the best from each of its pieces.
Brunson led the way with 44 points in Game 5.
Brunson led the way with 44 points in Game 5. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Before Jalen Brunson could dig his toe into the free throw line, before he could add another fourth-quarter point to his growing postseason number, the chant that originated in Madison Square Garden’s upper levels swept its way through the lower bowl, until all 19,812 blue-and-orange-clad fans spoke in unison.

M-V-P … M-V-P … M-V-P …

Final stat line for Brunson on Tuesday: 44 points, seven assists, four rebounds and another improbable New York Knicks win. No, the Indiana Pacers aren’t the best the Eastern Conference has to offer, less so when they are jogging after loose balls and getting pushed around on the glass. “Embarrassing,” was what Indiana coach Rick Carlisle called the Pacers’ effort, and the stat sheet he stared blankly at during his postgame news conference backed that up: Indiana didn’t win a single quarter and was outrebounded 53–29.

“Their level of fight,” Carlisle said, “was greater than ours.”

The Knicks were humiliated in Game 4, run out of Gainbridge Fieldhouse with a 32-point defeat. And from the opening tip of Game 5 they played like a team determined to give the same back. Brunson was the catalyst, as always. He scored 10 points in the first quarter and 18 in the second. In the third, after Indiana had chipped New York’s lead down to single digits, Brunson buried a transition three that killed the Pacers’ run. In the fourth, with Indiana attempting to mount one last surge, Brunson stepped in front of an oncoming Aaron Nesmith to draw a charge and scored seven points in 90 seconds to effectively put the game away.

“He is,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, “an incredible player.”

The stars show out at Madison Square Garden, never more than in the playoffs. Celebrity row—well, rows, really—is loaded. Chris Rock. Billy Crystal. Andrew Garfield. Billie Eilish. John McEnroe. Busta Rhymes. Common. Ben Stiller. A guy from something called The Vampire Diaries. Intermingled with the celebs is the ever-present Knicks royalty. Patrick Ewing. Clyde Frazier. John Starks. Larry Johnson. Brunson is one of them now, a star who blends tremendous production—Tuesday was Brunson’s fifth 40-point game of the playoffs—with leadership that does not go unnoticed.

“As much as you talk about him, and you talk about him a lot, it’s not enough,” Thibodeau said. “He’s so willing to share everything with his teammates. To me, that’s the best part of him. His play is spectacular, but who he is as a teammate, as a leader, it makes us that. And I think that’s what it is. Big shot after big shot. And I just love, there’s never any excuse-making from him. He is never talking about injuries. And a lot of times you hear people talking about their injury. It’s a lot of excuse making. You never get that from him. It’s always, ‘I’ll be better next game.’ Even when he plays a great game, ‘I’ll be better next game.’ And I love that mentality.”

Inside the Knicks locker room, that mentality is everywhere. Isaiah Hartenstein took a hard fall in Game 4 and dinged up his shoulder. X-rays were negative, so Hartenstein suited up. He collected 17 rebounds in 31 minutes, including 12 on the offensive glass.

There was little fanfare when Hartenstein signed with the Knicks in 2022. Two years, $16 million? Chump change by NBA standards. Nickels under James Dolan’s couch cushions. He was a journeyman. In this series, New York would be lost without him.

Donte DiVincenzo, too. DiVincenzo was a face of the Knicks’ failures in the two games in Indiana, obliterated in his matchup with Pacers All-Star Tyrese Haliburton, a matchup that has certainly gotten spicy. DiVincenzo’s stat line Tuesday—eight points, seven rebounds, four assists—didn’t stand out. His energy did. He took turns on Haliburton. He mixed it up in the paint. In the third quarter, DiVincenzo attempted to battle through a Myles Turner screen. When Turner took exception, DiVincenzo didn’t back down. 

“They were trying to be tough guys,” DiVincenzo said. “That’s not their identity … nobody’s [going] to fight in the NBA. Take the foul, keep it moving. You’re not a tough guy, just keep it moving.”

Hartenstein dunks over Turner during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Hartenstein dunks over Turner during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Miles McBride, inserted into the starting lineup, scored 17 points. Josh Hart added 18. Alec Burks had 18 off the bench. Burks was a spare part in the second half of the season, the three-point shot he had in Detroit (40.1%) failing him following the trade to the Knicks (30.1%). Injuries pressed Burks into duty, and he has responded. He’s averaging 17.3 points over the last three games, shooting 55%.

“He’s the ultimate pro,” Thibodeau said. “I’m not surprised.”

The Knicks celebrated as they walked off the Garden floor, hopeful that, at least for this round, they don’t have to come back. Indiana took a beating in Game 5, but the Pacers were 26–15 at home during the season and have already beaten the Knicks twice. Haliburton was embarrassed, but New York knows too well how explosive he can be.

“One thing that I’ve learned in the playoffs is that one game does not have any effect on the next,” Brunson said. “And so no matter what the situation is, whether you lose by one or lose by 30, it has nothing to do with [the] next game. Once we leave here tonight, this is over with. It’s all about how do we prepare for Game 6?”

Indeed. The Knicks will face a desperate team in Indiana on Friday, one with the talent to extend this series one more game. Thibodeau has seen his rotation decimated by injuries. Julius Randle is gone; Mitchell Robinson, too and O.G. Anunoby’s return seems far off. They will need the best of Brunson to eliminate the Pacers. The best of Hart, the best of DiVincenzo, the best of Hartenstein. They got it in Game 5. One more to go.


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Chris Mannix

CHRIS MANNIX

Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix has boxed with Juan Manuel Marquez, played guard in the NBA's D-League and even tried his hand at bull riding at the Sankey Rodeo School in Martin, Tenn. The latter assignment left him with a bunch of bruises and a fractured collarbone. "I liked all the first-person experiences, but fighting Juan was my favorite assignment for SI," says Mannix. "It was a tremendous experience that required brutal training and introduced me to a fear I never knew I had." Mannix has covered the NBA since he arrived at SI in 2003. He currently writes columns and profiles in the magazine and for SI.com and also serves as SI's NBA draft expert. Among the NBA stars he has profiled: Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook and Andrei Kirilenko. As a teenager Mannix was a locker room attendant with the Boston Celtics for eight seasons (1995-2003) and covered high school sports for the Boston Globe. "Working for the Celtics was like attending a different fantasy camp every game. I spent pregames D'ing up the likes of Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen and yes, Michael Jordan. Last time I went one-on-one with MJ he beat me 48-0. I got one shot off … and it was blocked." Boxing is also one of Mannix's specialties. He has reported for SI on several championship fights, annually hands out SI.com's boxing awards and writes the website's "Inside Boxing" column. Mannix won the 2012 Boxing Writers Association of America's awards for Best Feature over 1,750 words and Best Feature under 1,750 words. In addition to his duties at SI, Mannix serves as host of The Chris Mannix Show on NBC Sports Radio (Sundays 6–9 p.m. ET) and is a co-host of Voices of the Game, with Newy Scruggs every Wednesday from Noon–3 p.m. ET. In addition, Mannix is a ringside reporter for Epix and Fight Night on NBC and NBC Sports Network, and is a regular guest and fill-in host on The Dan Patrick Show and The Crossover on NBC Sports Network. He also regularly appears on sports radio shows across the country, including weekly appearances in Miami, Orlando and Salt Lake City.  Mannix received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Boston College in 2003 and graduated from Boston College High School in 1998 (which makes him a double Eagle). He resides in New York City.