Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, left, fights for a loose...

Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, left, fights for a loose ball with New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) during the first half of Game 6 in an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Friday, May 17, 2024, in Indianapolis. Credit: AP/Michael Conroy

INDIANAPOLIS — The Knicks have fought and clawed all season, overcoming adversity to get to the second seed and to get here, to a Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden.

But it didn’t feel like a reward in the late hours at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Friday night. Most of the Knicks spoke defiantly but in hushed tones after a chance to end the series slipped away on another night when the Pacers were the more desperate team and tied the series at 3-3 with a 116-103 win.

And it didn’t look like a reward. Jalen Brunson was hounded all night, as the Pacers worked to smother him with two and three defenders nearly every time he touched the ball. He finished with 31 points but had only five in the first half.

And it didn’t look like a reward for the indefatigable Josh Hart, either. In obvious pain, he had to ask out of the game but tried to will himself into action, repeatedly returning to the court until he wound up on the bench with a heating pad on his midsection and a towel over his head, ruled out with abdominal soreness for the rest of the game.

The fight and desire that had gotten the Knicks this far, to the brink of closing out the series, just wasn’t enough. The Pacers — pounding the Knicks in the paint, harassing Brunson all over the floor and fighting for loose balls as if their season depended on it — remained unbeaten on their home court in the postseason, setting up a deciding Game 7 at the Garden on Sunday. The home team has won each of the first six games.

The Pacers led by as many as 23 points, and with less than four minutes left, the Knicks pulled the plug on this one, emptying the bench and looking ahead.

“This is sort of the nature of the playoffs,” Knicks coach Tom 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.”

“That’s what we have each other for,” Brunson said. “There’s a lot of things obviously that physically don’t go our way with our team this year. I think our main focus is whoever we have out there, regardless of what you’re dealing with or anything, if you are out there, you are ready to go. Yes, Josh asked to come back out, but he went back in and gives everything he has. What more can you ask for from a teammate? Knowing the situation, we’re just going to have each other’s backs.”

And knowing Hart as he does, his status for Game 7? “I would assume he’s going to play,” Brunson said. “It’s Game 7.”

Before this game began, the Knicks insisted they were focused only on this night.

The focus may have been there, but the performance simply wasn’t.

Brunson had a brutal five-point first half. Hart had five points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes before being forced to sit the remainder of the game. But more than any missed shots, it was the Pacers aggressively taking the fight to the Knicks, outrebounding them 47-35 and powering in 62 points in the paint.

The Knicks endured a 2-for-13 shooting half for Brunson, who went 0-for-3 from beyond the arc and 1-for-4 from the free-throw line. He missed 11 straight field-goal attempts to end the half, the longest streak of his career for consecutive misses. Only the play of Deuce McBride (20 points) and DiVincenzo (15 of his 17 in the first half) kept the Knicks alive.

They managed to hang around in the half until a late burst by Indiana opened an 11-point deficit. The Knicks managed to close the gap to 61-51 at halftime — and had a free throw before the start of the third quarter, thanks to a technical foul as the half ended when Andrew Nembhard shoved DiVincenzo.

Brunson took the free throw to start the third quarter, converted that and immediately rushed the ball up the court for a layup to end his string of misses. Isaiah Hartenstein’s feed to McBride on a back-door cut chopped the Knicks’ deficit to 61-56 and prompted a Pacers timeout 38 seconds into the half. But even as Brunson began to catch fire — scoring nine points in less than five minutes — Indiana was able to stretch the lead again.

Battered, bruised — Hart’s injury just added to a list that already has grown to much of the regular rotation, with no expectation of getting OG Anunoby back Sunday — the Knicks move on for one more game.

“Obviously, you always wanna close out a series, but we understand that they’re a hard-playing team,” DiVincenzo said. “We knew it was gonna be a battle coming in here. They haven’t lost at home. But we still have another game. I know this team and how they’re gonna respond and we’ll be ready to go.

“I think speaking of the homecourt is, you look back at the end of the season. It’s the exact reason why we played the last couple games to get that two-seed. This is the exact reason. We’re going home, Game 7. Obviously, we know the Garden is gonna be rocking and we’re trying to handle business.”


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