New York Knicks’ Josh Hart react late in the 4th...

New York Knicks’ Josh Hart react late in the 4th quarter as the Knick continue to pound the Indiana Pacers in game 2 of the 2nd round of the NBA Playoffs at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

INDIANAPOLIS — The Knicks boarded their charter flight bound for Indiana Thursday afternoon and while the next steps may be riddled with uncertainty this much is true — there were more coaches, executives and maybe flight crew on board than healthy rotation players.

This is the life for the Knicks now as they navigate through the postseason, winning games and hearts, but watching the body count among their players pile up day by day. Julius Randle was already gone for the season after efforts to come back from his dislocated right shoulder. Bojan Bogdanovic underwent surgery after a first-round foot injury. Mitchell Robinson was lost for the season after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. And after Jalen Brunson threw a scare into the franchise and fan base Wednesday night, OG Anunoby was ruled out of Friday's Game 3 and will likely be lost for longer with a left hamstring strain. Brunson is listed as questionable with right foot soreness — although that was the report on him Wednesday in the first half when he missed 15-plus minutes and he never sat for a second after halftime.

Add to the challenge that the Knicks were headed to hostile territory with Pacers coach Rick Carlisle firing up the state with a hard-to-believe rant about the officiating and small markets being shut out by the big-market hunting NBA, a bit of gamesmanship for the officials to consider for Game 3. The Knicks are now down to a banged-up Brunson — as long as he can make it — as the lone opening night starter left, a total of six players who have played significant minutes left.

And somehow, they still believe. You hear a story often enough it starts to ring true and for the Knicks, that story has been coach Tom Thibodeau’s insistence on a next-man-up philosophy, that the team has enough to get the job done even as the roster thins.

“I think we actually believe it,” Josh Hart said. “I think that’s what it is. Obviously you never want injuries and sometimes you say things just to give an answer and kind of get through it. But we actually believe that.

“There’s a lot of guys on this team that can start with other guys in this league, so when we say it, it’s not cliche. It’s not just we’re saying it just because it sounds good. We’re actually saying it because we believe it. I’ve got faith in every one of our guys. So with stuff like that, sometimes it sucks. It’s like, ‘Damn we can’t catch a break?’ But we truly believe it’s next man up.”

In 1997, when the Knicks got into a late-game fight with the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the playoffs and returned to Madison Square Garden missing most of their key players to suspension, the marketing team adopted a message — “Nine men, one mission.” Nine men seems like a luxury to Thibodeau and the Knicks right now. Of the Knicks players eligible for Game 3, only six of them have played more than one minute this postseason. That includes Precious Achiuwa, who sat out four of the six first-round games and now likely will be pushed into a starting role. 

As the series shifts to Gainbridge Fieldhouse, it won’t just be Reggie Miller who was in attendance as a poke in the eye to the Knicks, but it will be 17,923 midwesterners screaming in their ears — unless of course Knicks fans pile in party buses and invade the arena like they did in Philadelphia.

It might seem like insurmountable odds and truth be told, despite the slick marketing, the shorthanded Knicks lost that game in 1997 and lost the series. It might seem like history worth recalling. Still, you point out what seems like realities and the Knicks don’t give in, insisting that they believe.

“I think there’s a blueprint here that Thibs has laid out,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “No matter who is on the court, everybody follows that and doesn’t go outside of themselves so no matter who is in the game we know what we’re looking to get and any game we play as long as we defend with low turnovers, we can win any game.

“That was the mindset [Wednesday]. We hit them in the mouth and they came back in the second quarter and took the lead. We were in the locker room like we’re going to win this game still. We got to defend, got to rebound, limit their second chances and play our offense. Not go outside ourselves. And that’s exactly what we did. Whoever we have on the court, it’s the same thing.”

Hart has played 48 minutes in each of the first two games of the series — unsurprising as he has sat just 15 minutes total in the eight postseason games combined. DiVincenzo played 44 on Wednesday.

“It just goes to show you it's a bunch of dogs on the team,” Achiuwa said. “Guys were locked in, ready to come in and play their parts for the most part. There's a lot of guys that love to win on the team, so you can't ask for nothing more than that. Once you have a bunch of guys that enjoy winning, and are willing to do whatever it takes to win a basketball game, you can go far with that . . . There's always a next-man up mentality on this team. We have a bunch of winners who are going to come in and contribute in any way they can.”

While others may twist themselves in knots trying to figure out who can step in now, for the Knicks it might be five players, maybe six and if you see a seventh something probably isn’t going great. If it takes 48 minutes from their best players, that is what they will do. Six men, one mission?

“We know this is our way,” Thibodeau said. “Our way is to play really hard all the time and play together. If we do that, we’ll have a chance.”


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