The Legend of Jalen Brunson Grows With Knicks’ Gritty Win Over Pacers

The pain was evident, even if the stoic Jalen Brunson refused to give into it. Whatever triggered Brunson’s right foot injury, which he appeared to tweak in the first quarter of Wednesday’s Game 2 of the second-round series between the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers, the impact was obvious. There was no burst on Brunson’s first drive to the basket in the third quarter. Defensively, he looked a step slow. Coming out of the locker room, coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t know if Brunson was going to be able to play in the second half. A few minutes in, Thibodeau was likely wondering when he would have to pull him. 

Only he didn’t. The shots started falling. The foot loosened up. Brunson scored 10 points in the third quarter, when the Knicks turned a 10-point halftime deficit into an eight-point third-quarter lead. He racked up 14 in the fourth. After sitting out the entire second quarter, Brunson didn’t sit a minute in the second half. On the 54th anniversary of Willis Reed hobbling out of the Madison Square Garden tunnel to help the Knicks win Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Brunson, who finished with 29 points in New York’s 130–121 win, helped push the Knicks one game closer to getting there. 

“A lot of toughness,” Thibodeau said. 

“I was going to give it a go,” Brunson said. “No matter what.”

Each game, the legend of Brunson grows. His 36 points per contest in April helped push the Knicks, who have been without Julius Randle since late January, into the No. 2 seed. His 35.5 points against the Philadelphia 76ers powered New York into the second round. Against Indiana, armed with its own star point guard, Tyrese Haliburton, Brunson has been electric. He scored 43 in Game 1. In Game 2, he racked up 24 of his points in the second half. 

“I mean, he’s a warrior,” Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo said. “That’s all I got. There was no doubt in our minds that he would be back. All season long, no matter what was thrown at him, injury bug or whatever, he always bounces back. We knew the severity of the game. Everybody had confidence he was coming back.”

He needed to. Indiana came out firing in Game 2. Haliburton, who was held to six points in Game 1, more than doubled it (13) in the first quarter. Obi Toppin, who the Knicks discarded last summer for a pair of second-round picks, had 10 off the bench. Indy’s full-court defense seemed to wear down a Knicks team that rarely goes to its bench. The Pacers shot 57.1% from the field in the first half—including 52.6% from three—and looked poised to send the series back to Indiana tied at one. 

But there is a relentlessness to these Knicks. It begins with Brunson. But it continues to DiVincenzo, who scored 20 in the second half. To Josh Hart. Hart averaged 46.3 minutes against Philadelphia. He’s played all 48 in both games against Indiana. “Thibs always asks me if I need [a break],” Hart said, “and I always tell him no.” Isaiah Hartenstein is averaging 13.5 points and nine rebounds in this series and is shooting 62.5%. 

DiVincenzo scored 20 points in the first half.

DiVincenzo scored 20 points in the first half. / Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

“We’re just sticking together no matter what,” Brunson said. “No matter what the situation is, no matter what’s thrown at us, no matter what’s a disadvantage for us, we’re going to stick together. That’s just the thing that we always harp on for each other.”

The Knicks will take a commanding 2–0 lead to Indiana but make no mistake, the Pacers are not going away. A couple of bad whistles cost them a chance to win Game 1 and Indiana had its chances in Game 2. Haliburton (34 points) sprung to life Wednesday, and T.J. McConnell’s pesky defense gave Brunson trouble. New York, meanwhile, lost O.G. Anunoby in the third quarter with a hamstring injury and Brunson’s foot won’t have much recovery time before Friday’s Game 3. 

Still, there’s a swagger to these Knicks. It flows from Brunson, the second-round pick turned starter, the starter turned All-Star, the All-Star who will add All-NBA to his résumé in the days to come. On Wednesday, Nikola Jokić was named MVP for the third time. Brunson finished fifth in the voting. If voters could re-vote and include postseason performance, it’s likely he would finish even higher. 

There is, said DiVincenzo, “a level of calmness” when Brunson is on the floor. A “mental toughness,” added Thibodeau. “We have him on the court with us and everybody can settle down and play their own game,” DiVincenzo said. Added Thibodeau, “the ability to get through things, to be at your best, when your best is needed, even when you may not be feeling your best, and that’s who he is, a great leader.”

More than 50 years after Reed made MSG rumble, Brunson heard the same roars. “This place has been nothing but special for me,” Brunson said. Indeed, though in these playoffs, Brunson has given special right back.

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