Nembhard’s ‘unbelievable’ late 31-footer fuels Pacers’ win

INDIANAPOLIS — In a series being defined by bodies crashing to the court, gamesmanship with the referees and clutch shot-making, it was a miracle heave that now looms largest.

Andrew Nembhard breathed life into his Indiana Pacers, making a 31-foot bomb as the shot clock buzzed. It happened with 16 seconds left in Game 3, snapping a tie in the Pacers’ 111-106 victory over the New York Knicks to pull the series to 2-1.

It tied the longest shot of Nembhard’s career and was hardly a thing of beauty. He rushed it as he was feverishly stepping back to find room and nearly fumbled the ball as he went up. But as the ball swished through, igniting the hometown crowd, it became series-altering.

“I can’t say that was a product of practicing,” Nembhard said. “That was just an in-the-moment type of thing.”

To say it was unexpected was an understatement as Nembhard was having a tough night. After Knicks star Jalen Brunson had torched him repeatedly over the first two games, making 14 of 21 shots for 33 points when Nembhard was the primary defender, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle told him Thursday night that he was making a change and putting the bigger Aaron Nesmith on Brunson for the pivotal game.

Nembhard struggled on offense, missing his first six shots and not scoring until the fourth quarter. But all of that was forgotten with the sweet redemption of making the huge basket over Brunson as he was trying to close out on him.

It was a broken play as Tyrese Haliburton allowed himself to be trapped near half court and fired it to Nembhard with almost no time to spare.

“I put Drew in kind of a bad situation, and he just made an unbelievable shot,” Haliburton said. “He just really stepped up to the moment when we needed him the most.”

Haliburton was in the midst of a huge game, scoring 35 points with seven assists. He had made six 3-pointers already, and the Knicks were desperate to get the ball out of his hands.

“Haliburton had the ball and he had it going pretty good, [so] double-team,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We had a good rotation. He made a really good shot.”

After the Knicks won the first two games of the series by making most of the vital plays and getting crucial offensive rebounds in the fourth quarters, that trend flipped Friday.

With the Knicks playing smaller after losing OG Anunoby to a hamstring injury, the Pacers got the needed offensive rebounds down the stretch, including one by Nesmith that allowed for an extra possession that led to the Nembhard shot.

“At the end of the day, he shouldn’t have got that shot cause we should have got a rebound,” said Knicks guard Josh Hart, who had 18 rebounds in the game.

As with the first two games, there was another officiating controversy. With just over two minutes left and the game tied, Hart was on a breakaway after a steal, but Pacers center Myles Turner chased him down and blocked the shot from behind, a major momentum turn.

Replays showed Turner might have made the block a split second after the ball touched the backboard. It was not reviewed.

“I know it was a goaltend,” Hart said. “I saw it.”

It was the best play of a strong game from Turner, who had 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks.

Brunson, who had been on a hot streak throughout the playoffs, struggled with Nesmith on him. He was questionable coming into the game with a right foot injury, and the Pacers pressured Brunson as he was bringing the ball up the court more aggressively than in the first two games. Brunson briefly left the game in the first quarter when he appeared to slip and tweak the foot.

With less space and perhaps a little less lift off the foot, Brunson ended up shooting 10-of-26 for an inefficient 26 points. The Knicks suffered without his trademark fourth-quarter magic as they went 4-of-19 shooting over the game’s last 12 minutes. It was far and away the Pacers’ best stretch of defense in the series.

“If I’m out there, I’m playing, and there’s no excuse whether I’m hurting or not,” Brunson said. “If I’m hurting, I’ll come out.”

It appeared to be a night where Donte DiVincenzo was going to take another hero turn as he had one of the finest games of his career. He scored 35 points and tied a Knicks playoff record by making seven 3-pointers. But he didn’t make a basket in the game’s final 11 minutes, and with Brunson struggling, the Knicks’ run of clutch-time dominance came to an end at the hands of Nembhard’s stunner.

“I was really proud of the way our guys hung in, kept fighting, stayed the course, kept their emotions in check, and then made a couple of plays at the end,” Carlisle said. “There’s just a lot of things to be proud of, but it’s only one game and so we’re going to have to circle the wagons very quickly and get ready for Sunday afternoon.”

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