Jalen Brunson's latest masterpiece: Putting on a show that everybody expected

NEW YORK — In one sense, as Rick Carlisle sees it, basketball can be extremely complicated.

“NBA games are games with five or six thousand events that happen throughout the game,” the Indiana Pacers head coach told reporters before Tuesday’s Game 5 at Madison Square Garden. “You know, any notion that a game is going to be — at this time of year, with the stakes as high as they are — is going to be the same from one to the next, it’s just probably not going to happen.”

Except, of course, when it's anything but complicated.

“Right now, it's pretty simple,” he said. “If you don't hit somebody and go get the ball, you're going to lose.”

And … well, about that:

The Knicks hit the Pacers early on Tuesday night, with Isaiah Hartenstein bull-rushing his way into his first offensive rebound a mere 61 seconds into the proceedings. They hit Indiana often, pulling down 20 offensive rebounds — 12 of them corralled by Hartenstein, a career high for the center — leading to 26 second-chance points. They hit Carlisle's club repeatedly, rolling up a 62-36 edge in paint scoring — just over half of their total in a return-of-serve 121-91 blowout victory — thanks in large part to hammering the visitors time and again with their No. 1 offensive option.

That’s the other way the state of play’s been pretty simple in this second-round series: When Jalen Brunson looks like Jalen Brunson, the Knicks win; when he doesn’t, they don’t. And after lacking burst, lift, balance and comfort during New York’s two losses in Indianapolis, Brunson — perhaps the beneficiary of his early exit in Sunday’s blowout Game 4 loss, followed by two nights in his own bed — once again looked like the All-NBA incinerator who’d flame-broiled these Pacers on this court in Games 1 and 2.

Brunson put his imprint on the game early, scoring 10 points on five made shots in the first quarter — just one fewer make than he managed in all of Game 4. From there, the Knicks’ All-Star point guard took over completely, scoring or assisting on 23 points in the second quarter; the Pacers, as a team, produced just 22 in the frame, as New York took a 15-point lead into halftime that it would never relinquish.

“As much as you talk about him — and you talk about him a lot, and rightfully so — it's not enough,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said of Brunson.

Maybe it’s not enough because, at this point, we’re running out of superlatives to do it justice.

Brunson torched every coverage that Carlisle and Co. threw at them on Tuesday — single matchups with Aaron Nesmith and Andrew Nembhard, “show” coverage with Tyrese Haliburton briefly hedging out onto him before trying to sprint back to his man (and out of Brunson’s line of fire), blitzes, traps, double-teams, you name it — on his way to 44 points on 18-for-35 shooting.

That's Brunson's fifth 40-point game of the 2024 NBA playoffs. Since 1980, only LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Knicks legend Bernard King have had more in a single playoff run.

“We’ve all come to expect him to almost be superhuman every night,” Thibodeau said. “You know, he's an incredible player. He's loaded up on every night. He’s the focal point of everyone's game plan … He's like a machine. Every day, he comes in, locked in, this is what he's going to do. He'll be ready for the next game, be ready for the next game.”

Given how he looked in Games 3 and 4, as he battled through the right foot soreness that knocked him out of the first half of Game 2, it seemed far from certain that he’d be ready for this next game. But there he was on Tuesday, giving every Pacers defender he faced nightmares — and the Knicks everything they needed to continue their dream season, and draw within one win of the franchise’s first Eastern Conference finals berth since 2000.

“You always have confidence that he's going to bounce back,” Thibodeau said.

Brunson wasn't willing to attribute his bounce-back to any particular shift in gameplan, approach or strategy: "Just finding a way. That's really just it. There's nothing special about it. We just needed to get it done." But Thibodeau did find one way to help get his superstar engine back on the right track.

The adjustments with which Indiana made life so much more difficult on Brunson in Games 3 and 4 — not only switching the longer, stronger, more physical Nesmith onto him as his primary defender, but showing aggressive help behind the play off of Precious Achiuwa, the non-shooting power forward Thibodeau started in place of injured linchpin OG Anunoby — were less successful in Game 5. One big reason why? Achiuwa wasn’t starting anymore.

“Obviously, we were disappointed in the way we played in Game 4 in Indiana, and we had to respond and we had to fix some things,” Thibodeau said. “But I felt we were in mud in that game, you know? Sometimes that happens, and then it's not necessarily what happened, it’s how we respond to it.”

His response: Downsize and slide reserve guard Miles “Deuce” McBride into the starting lineup.

The goal was two-fold. On offense, moving to McBride inserted a more threatening shooter than Achiuwa (McBride shot 41% from 3-point range during the regular season and has shot 37% in these playoffs) capable of punishing Indiana for loading up too aggressively on Brunson, as well as a higher-end ball-handler more capable of making plays in space if the Pacers again tried to blitz the ball out of Brunson's hands. That McBride's a willing screener — and that he'd be guarded by Tyrese Haliburton, who'd torched the Knicks in two games in Indiana and whom the Pacers really don't want guarding Brunson if they can help it — didn't hurt, either.

“Yeah, I think trying to get him into actions is really big for us,” McBride said after the game. “We feel that Jalen on a lot of people is a mismatch, but trying to get him, obviously, on Tyrese to, you know, maybe slow him down on the other end is big-time, too.”

“Slowing him down on the other end” was the second half of McBride’s mission in Game 5. The third-year guard hounded the Pacers’ All-Star all over the court, picking him up the full 94 feet and attempting to deny him the ball at every opportunity.

“He had great impact in the two games in Indy — just scoring, being able to facilitate,” said McBride, who finished with 17 points on 7-for-15 shooting and four assists in 40 minutes in his first career playoff start. “I just wanted to limit his touches as much [as possible], because you can't do any of those things if you don't have the ball.”

With McBride face-guarding him the length of the court and pressuring every touch when he did get the ball, Indiana's orchestrator lacked both oxygen and opportunity. After racking up 89 points on 60 field goal attempts across his previous three games, Haliburton could muster only a quiet 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting with five assists in 34 minutes of work — during which the Knicks blitzed his Pacers by 22 points.

“I’ve just got to do a better job of being aggressive,” Haliburton said. “I think we go back to Game 1 — I said the same thing after Game 1. It’s more on me than it is on what anybody else is doing … I’ve got to watch the film to really see where I can be better. I think it’s probably the ebbs and flows of every game, and sometimes you’re just trying to feel the game out. I just didn’t do what I’m supposed to do today, and I’ll be better in Game 6.”

That the Pacers now find themselves searching for answers represents a 180-degree shift from the state of affairs on Sunday evening, when it appeared the Knicks could no longer rely on the recipe that had delivered them 50 wins, the East’s No. 2 seed and a hard-fought first-round victory over the 76ers. With Mitchell Robinson and OG Anunoby joining Julius Randle and Bojan Bogdanović on the injured list, it seemed as if New York just didn’t have enough healthy bodies capable of providing enough shooting to keep Indiana honest, enough defensive steel to slow down the NBA’s fastest offense, and enough support for a version of Brunson that, working through a sore right foot, didn’t seem capable of surviving the firepower of the Pacers’ Haliburton-led attack two more times in a three-game sprint.

But then Tuesday rolled around, and it turned out that Brunson can still look like Brunson. And that, when left on an island without multiple help defenders sitting in the gaps behind him, Nesmith isn't any more of a Brunson-stopper than Kelly Oubre Jr. and Nicolas Batum wound up being. And that, in McBride and exhumed-from-mothballs veteran Alec Burks, New York might just have enough complementary ball-handling, playmaking and shot-making to keep Indy's defense honest. And that Hartenstein — now just the ninth player since 1977 to grab 12 offensive rebounds in a playoff game, according to Stathead, a list that includes the likes of Moses Malone, Shaquille O'Neal, Dennis Rodman and Knick legend Charles Oakley — could turn himself into an ungovernable beast under the glass that the likes of Myles Turner, Pascal Siakam, Isaiah Jackson and Obi Toppin just couldn't handle.

“I just wanted to be more physical,” said Hartenstein, who added seven points, five defensive rebounds, five assists and a block in 31 minutes of engine-room work. “I feel like the games in Indiana, I wasn’t playing like myself. I wasn’t being physical. I was letting them kind of play how I play.”

By wresting back control of that battle of physicality — an absurd 48.1% offensive rebounding rate, massive edges in the possession battle and on seemingly every loose ball — the Knicks regained control of the series, and gave themselves two chances to finish the Pacers off. But as multiple Knicks said after the win, this momentum's only as good as tomorrow's starting pitcher.

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

For the Pacers, that answer had better be by getting ready for a bare-knuckle brawl. Anything less, and their season might be over before the weekend.

“They turned their pressure up tonight, and our pressure was virtually nonexistent,” Carlisle said. “We failed on many levels, and so, we’ve got to make some serious adjustments for Game 6.

“We need to get out of here, and get home.”

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