Josh Hart #3 of the Knicks shoots the ball against Myles...

Josh Hart #3 of the Knicks shoots the ball against Myles Turner #33 of the Indiana Pacers during the second quarter in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round Playoffs at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on May 17, 2024 in Indianapolis.  Credit: Getty Images/Dylan Buell

In the fourth quarter of Game 6 on Friday night, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau signaled down to the end of the bench for Josh Hart. Associate head coach Johnnie Bryant had to shake his head no, letting Thibodeau know that Hart was not going to be able to go. Without flinching, Thibodeau just called for the next body on the bench.

It was one more example of what the Knicks have done all season to get to this point and, more telling, what the team is facing as it prepares for Game 7 of its Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Pacers on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

A next-man-up mentality, a willingness to fight with whoever is left, has been the trademark of this depleted team. Now, in the Knicks’ biggest game of the season, it is on display one more time.

But as motivating as they may be, slogans — whether it’s Thibodeau’s “next man up” mantra or the “no quit, all grit, close-knit” posted outside the locker room — ring hollow if the Knicks can’t coax 48 more minutes of fight out of their battered and bruised bodies.

Ask anyone on the Knicks and there is little doubt that Hart, who suffered an abdominal injury in the first quarter Friday, will suit up and play. But how effective he can be is another question. He struggled in Game 6, visibly wincing with every bit of effort in the 31 minutes he played.

Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson and Bojan Bogdanovic already are out, but OG Anunoby, who has been sidelined since Game 2 with a hamstring strain, was upgraded to questionable. So on the biggest stage, Jalen Brunson is joined by stand-ins for the stars, and the Knicks still believe.

“Obviously, you never wanna see anybody get hurt, but it’s been our season,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “We have more than enough whoever’s on the court. I’ve said it 100 times. Whatever guys on the court, we have a blueprint here, and Thibs demands certain things from certain guys. And you go out there, you compete your tails off and you give yourself a chance to win. That’s our mindset. Whether he goes or not, that’s our mindset.”

The Knicks had little doubt that whatever it takes to get on the floor, Hart will do that.

“I would assume he’s going to play,” Brunson said. “It’s Game 7.”

But just what condition or how productive can he be? That’s the unknown right now, with little time to heal.

What the Knicks will have is 19,812 screaming believers in the crowd, a fan base that has waited 29 years for the opportunity to close out a Game 7 of a playoff series on the home court (and in 1995, the crowd couldn’t coax Patrick Ewing’s finger roll to fall and it was the Pacers who celebrated on the Garden floor).

So while the crowd may provide a boost — the home team has not lost a game in this series — it will be left to the few healthy bodies left standing to try to carry the Knicks across the finish line and into the conference finals for the first time since 2000.

“It’s definitely something we fought for, to have home-court advantage for as long as we can throughout the playoffs,” Brunson said. “I’m just happy the team has the mindset we do. But it’s not given just because it’s at home. We have to go out there and play and they’re going to be ready and we’re going to be ready as well.”

“I think that we’ve worked for that,” Thibodeau said, echoing his star. “But you still have to make sure you’re putting the work in to earn a win. You’re not gonna win just because you’re at home. You have to put the work into it and we have to play well.”

The Knicks didn’t with a chance to close out the series at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Friday night. The Pacers played as the more desperate team, outrebounding the Knicks, heeding the urging of coach Rick Carlisle and attacking the Knicks repeatedly in the paint.

The struggles of Hart, the heart of the team, undoubtedly had an effect on the Knicks’ ability to match the energy of Indiana. But Brunson struggled offensively in the first half against the constant double- and triple-teaming and physical pounding he was taking, scoring only five points in the half as the Knicks fell into a double-digit hole.

Now it seems almost like a Hollywood script, the last few combatants left trying to muster up enough fight to stay alive.

“This is sort of the nature of the playoffs,” Thibodeau said. “This is what you play for. You love competition. This is it. Hard-fought, competitive. Oftentimes it comes down to a hustle play, a loose ball, whatever it might be, and so you’re gonna get tested physically, mentally, emotionally, and you’ve gotta be able to get through all that, and so whatever it is that we’re facing, we can overcome. Just keep battling.”

Game 7s at home

The Knicks are 7-8 all-time in NBA playoff Game 7s, including this 5-2 record at Madison Square Garden:

Year Round Opponent Result

1970 Div. semifinal Bullets W, 127-114

NBA Final Lakers W, 113-99

1971 Conf. final Bullets L, 93-91

1974 Conf. semifinal Bullets W, 91-81

1994 Conf. semifinal Bulls W, 87-77

Conf. final Pacers W, 94-90

1995 Conf. semifinal Pacers L, 97-95


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