Knicks-Pacers: 5 takeaways as Jalen Brunson carries Knicks to 3-2 lead

Jalen Brunson records his fifth 40-point game this postseason with 44 points in Game 5 against Indiana.

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NEW YORK — The New York Knicks are one win from their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 24 years.

Two days after their worst effort of the playoffs, the Knicks had their best, a 121-91 victory against the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday. It was the first of their seven playoff wins that wasn’t within three points in the last five minutes.

Jalen Brunson had his legs, Isaiah Hartenstein grabbed nearly every rebound and the Knicks’ defense was as sharp as it’s been in the postseason.

Here are some notes, quotes, numbers and film as the Knicks handed the Pacers their second-worst margin of defeat this season.

1. Jalen Brunson is just fine

After the Knicks got clobbered in Game 4 on Sunday, Brunson said he was “fine.” But it was hard to believe him given that he had suffered a foot injury in Game 2 and shot 16-for-43 (37%) over the two games in Indiana.

It seems that we should have taken him at his word.

Brunson led the way with 44 points on 18-for-35 shooting in Game 5, his fifth game with at least 40 points in these playoffs, another superstar performance in front of an adoring crowd at Madison Square Garden.

His jumper was falling, but Brunson was on the attack all night, with 32 of the 44 points coming in the paint (where he shot 13-for-22) or at the free-throw line (6-for-7). The 26 points in the paint were tied for the second most in his career, topped only by his 30 points in the paint when he scored 61 total against San Antonio in late March.

The Knicks ran some actions (see below) to help him get downhill. And Brunson was obviously feeling much better than he did in Game 4 on Sunday.

Asked what was different, Brunson said, “I don’t know. Maybe because of the home crowd. They were phenomenal and I just had to regroup, had to adjust.”

He didn’t just have more lift on his shots. He also looked much quicker.

Early in the fourth quarter, Brunson was inbounding the ball on the side of the floor with his defender (Ben Sheppard) shading toward the top. And as he passed the ball to Isaiah Hartenstein, Brunson took off toward the basket, beating Sheppard to the block, taking contact and spinning in a remarkable reverse layup as he hit the floor:

Jalen Brunson reverse layup

“M-V-P” chants followed the layup. The rest of the Knicks followed their leader.

“I just love there’s never any excuse-making from him,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said of Brunson. “You never get that from him. It’s always, ‘I’ll be better next game.’”

2. Pacers can’t handle double-drag action

The Knicks have been targeting Tyrese Haliburton all series, often setting screens for Brunson with the guy whom Haliburton is guarding.

Haliburton does not want to switch those screens. He’s been hedging (jumping out high) against them to hold Brunson up while the initial defender recovers. Over the last two games, Aaron Nesmith had done a terrific job of working around the screen and getting back in front of Brunson before he could gain much of an advantage.

On Tuesday, Haliburton was guarding Miles McBride, who started for the Knicks instead of Precious Achiuwa. Instead of having McBride set single screens, the Knicks often went to “double-drag” screens, where Brunson dribbles off two screens, the first from McBride and the second from the center.

Haliburton still had no desire to switch. Myles Turner (guarding the big) wanted to retreat into the paint. Brunson’s defender now had two screens to navigate instead of just one.

With the Pacers up six midway through the first quarter, T.J. McConnell was guarding Brunson. McBride and Hartenstein set two screens for Brunson, coming from the right side of the floor. Haliburton whiffed with his hedge and Turner stayed attached to Hartenstein.

McConnell looked like he was initially anticipating a switch from Haliburton, and by the time he was able to scramble back to the ball, Brunson was already heading downhill toward the basket:

Jalen Brunson layup

A little later in the first, the Knicks ran the same action from the other side of the floor. This time, Turner hedged out on the second screen, but he never cut Brunson off from another drive to the hoop:

Jalen Brunson layup

3. The Knicks’ defense comes back

Through Monday, the Knicks’ defense ranked 15th in the playoffs, with only the Phoenix Suns (who were swept in the first round) having allowed more points per 100 possessions. New York’s defense wasn’t great at the start of Game 5, with Indiana scoring 22 points on its first 12 trips down the floor.

But Obi Toppin ended a streak of five straight scores by taking a bad shot with plenty of time left on the shot clock. Then, the Knicks seemingly found their legs on defense.

They stayed with the Pacers’ ball and player movement. They helped when help was needed. They rotated from there and didn’t stop until they got the stop.

One defensive possession late in the second quarter had it all.

Andrew Nembhard brought the ball up the floor, faked a handoff to Toppin and seemingly had a step on Donte DiVincenzo as he drove to the hoop. But Achiuwa was there with help. The Pacers kept the ball and bodies moving, but the Knicks stayed with them. Nembhard circled around, took a handoff and seemingly had DiVincenzo beat again. But Brunson was there, ready to take a charge:

Great Knicks defense

Nembhard kicked the ball out to Turner and Achiuwa was there with a controlled close-out. Turner got the ball back to Nembhard, who rejected Turner’s screen and drove once again. But Achiuwa switched off Turner, stayed with Nembhard as he crossed over and drove into the paint, and swatted his layup attempt:

Precious Achiuwa block on Andrew Nembhard

That’s really good offense and tremendous defense. There were more possessions like that:

Great Knicks defense

Despite scoring those 22 points on their first 12 possessions, the Pacers finished with just 91 on 92. It was just the third time this season (93 total games) that they had been held under a point per possession. And it was, easily, the Knicks’ best defensive game of the playoffs.

“It was a great defensive effort today,” Thibodeau said. “We got to do it all over again [in Game 6]. It won’t carry over unless we put the work into the next game.”

4. Knicks play small, dominate the glass

McBride had started the second half of Game 4 in place of Achiuwa. Before Game 5, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was asked about the two lineups the Knicks could go to.

“Their smaller lineup is gonna be faster and more perimeter skilled,” he said. “That’s going to be hard to guard, for sure. When they’re big, you have to deal with them more on the boards. That’s hard to guard too.”

Alas, the Knicks played the small lineup (Achiuwa and Hartenstein played just 6.7 minutes together) and were hard to deal with on the boards. Hartenstein had seven offensive rebounds less than three minutes into the second quarter, finishing with 12, the most for any player in a playoff game in the last two years.

The Knicks’ offensive rebounding percentage of 50% was neither their highest mark of these playoffs nor the highest mark against the Pacers this season. But that’s a huge number and all those offensive boards turned into 27 second-chance points.

“Isaiah was phenomenal,” Thibodeau said. “Those extra possessions were huge for us.”

Brunson cooled off a bit in the fourth quarter, but Hartenstein was still doing his thing, grabbing four offensive boards and drawing two loose-ball fouls on rebounds over a stretch of seven possessions when the Knicks were already up 20. He took just three shots, but dominated the game almost as much as Brunson did.

5. An extra day off coming

Before this round, winners of Game 5 in a 2-2, best-of-seven series have gone on to win the series 82% of the time. Teams that won Game 5 closed it out in Game 6 (118) more often than in Game 7 (72).

The Knicks (after blowing Game 5 in the final seconds) closed out their first-round series in Game 6 in Philadelphia, and they certainly can do the same in Indiana on Friday (time TBD, ESPN).

While they lost both games at Gainbridge Fieldhouse this past weekend, the first one went down to the wire, and the second came after a short turnaround. The Knicks are short-handed, banged up and playing heavy minutes, and they sure looked it in Game 4 on Sunday afternoon.

But they looked refreshed in Game 5, when Brunson was the only Knick to play more than 40 minutes. Alec Burks has emerged as a seventh rotation guy who can spell the guards, and there are now two days off between games.

Of course, if they don’t win Game 6, the Knicks will face a similar turnaround as the one between Games 3 and 4, this time with travel. Game 7 would be at 3:30 p.m. back in New York on Sunday.

So both teams should feel some urgency on Friday night. The Pacers’ season is on the line and the Knicks need all the rest they can get.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X. 

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