The Knicks were outmatched in Indiana. Will there be enough for Game 7 at Madison Square Garden?

INDIANAPOLIS — Josh Hart does almost everything on the basketball court except ask to get off the court. He has recorded four complete games through the Knicks’ first 11 postseason contests, however, with New York on the brink of its first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2000 when Hart drifted to the sideline, his left arm pinching him. Ribs came up just over five minutes into the first quarter Friday night.

“Obviously, something must have gone wrong,” Knicks All-Star guard Jalen Brunson said.

Hart retreated to the corner of the visiting team’s bench inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse and stood conferring with the athletic training staff. He would return to the ground just two minutes later, then in his trademark style dove to the ground for a loose ball, eluding a pass to Donte DiVincenzo in the right corner. But Hart held his midsection during every downbeat of the game’s frenetic pace. Indiana stops and the Knicks explode into the open floor after baskets. The Pacers lived in the lane all evening, took a 23-point fourth-quarter lead, and when Hart was ejected for the remainder of Game 6, Indiana exited 116-103 with what the team labeled a “stomach ache.” success

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) drives to the basket past Indiana Pacers forward Obi Tappin during the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Friday, May 17, 2024, in Indianapolis.  (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) is surrounded by the Pacers during the first half of Game 6 on Friday in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The Knicks’ injuries have been an integral part of this playoff run as New York is one win away from the next round that has eluded the franchise for two decades. Now Game 7 is set for 3:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden, and a key question looms between contests: Will Hart have enough time to heal, let alone return to form? “I think you can add that to the list,” Branson said.

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New York is already down three starters with Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson sidelined by season-ending surgeries, and OG Anunoby nursing a strained hamstring that left the Knicks without their marquee trade-deadline acquisition from Game 2. From New York to Indiana for Game 6, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau revealed only that the 6-foot-7 forward is improving “day by day.” When asked what chance Anunoby has for a decisive match in the world’s most famous arena, Thibodeau deadpanned: “Whatever the doctor says.”

Hart’s performance, or lack thereof, was accompanied by the Pacers’ own blockbuster addition, Anunoby’s former Raptors teammate, Pascal Siakam, who had his best game of the series, leading Indiana with 25 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Hart had no answer to Siakam’s spin moves and probing drives. Siakam drew so much attention that Myles Turner sneaked into the lane late in the second quarter and was able to unleash a vicious hammer on top of the Knicks’ defense.

New York then tried a combination of centers in Siakam, Isaiah Hardenstein, and Precious Achiua, but he kept drilling mid-range jumpers. Thibodeau said the change was due to Hart’s injury and trying to keep Siakam guessing. “I don’t think you give him a standard diet of a guy,” Thibodeau said.

Credit to the young, unproven Indiana roster for responding against the wall. After dominating the glass during the previous contest, the Knicks found 29 shot attempts, outscored the Pacers 53-29 overall and destroyed them with a 62-36 points-in-the-paint advantage. In Game 6, Indiana turned it all around, outscoring New York 62-38 from the interior and winning the rebounding battle.

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The Knicks’ only consistent start belonged to Deuce McBride, a scrappy backup guard Thibodeau inserted into the starting lineup for Game 5 to chase down Tyrese Halliburton. McBride went 11 first, screening for Brunson and popping the perimeter with more ground for Halliburton to cover on the defensive end.

However, the move did little to free Brunson. He looked different off the bounce, leaving free throws on the table and abusing his patented pivoting fadeaways. Appearing more focused on getting the whistle than finishing the bucket, he missed a layup after pinning his defender at the hip. On the left elbow, he danced with the much bigger Aaron Nesmith, causing Brunson to lose his balance. Brunson was 2-for-13 for 5 points in the first half after each dribble was hit by Nesmith or Pacers guard Andrew Nembhardt or reserve DJ McConnell.

“They used three different defenders on him, all different sizes,” Hartenstein said. “They were loading up, so I think we have to do a better job of getting Jalen easy.”

“They’re doing a great job with all the series showing different looks to me,” Branson said. “I must study it well.”

DiVincenzo tangled with Nembard late in the half to draw a technical. The Knicks weren’t awarded their next free throw until early in the third quarter, giving Brunson a free trip to the foul line. She switched shoes from a lime green pair of “Grinch” Kobe low tops to an all-white set. If there is a silver lining to be found, Branson found his form after that trip. He started 4-of-4 in the second half and finished the third quarter 6-of-9 for 14 points, and McConnell’s little chances in the last attempt completely shut him down.

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McConnell has been a revelation for the Pacers, who are now 6-0 at home in the playoffs. He contributed another 15 points and 4 assists in 16 minutes off the bench, barreling into the open floor at one point, drawing a foul on Hart and hitting the bucket anyway, for which he turned to the Pacers bench and yelled, “I’m a dog!

The energy is raised whenever McConnell takes the court, even when Halliburton, Indiana’s All-Star engine, takes over the Pacers’ already frantic offense. That’s the extra powder the Pacers will surely need to get past the Manhattan matinee crowd above Penn Station on Sunday. McBride told reporters that Hart was feeling better after the game, but that his condition will definitely remain in the series finale.

“If his leg hadn’t fallen off,” Hardenstein said, “I’d say he’d probably play.”

“I assume he’s playing,” Branson said. “It’s Game 7.”

The Knicks clawed their way into the final minute of their final regular-season game to clinch the No. 2 seed in this Eastern Conference postseason bracket and earned the right to host Indiana instead of fighting for their lives in enemy territory. With or without Hart, they know the familiar structure won’t be enough to get Boston to the NBA Finals.

“It’s definitely something we’ve struggled with, we’ve got to get as much home-court advantage as we can,” Branson said. “But it’s not offered because we’re at home.”

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