Recent history was starting to repeat itself, and not the kind the Knicks wanted to experience again.
A 25-point lead was down to two, and the large Madison Square Garden crowd was groaning with each made basket by the Pacers and costly turnover committed by the Knicks.
Only two nights ago, the Knicks blew a 17-point lead to the Bucks. Afterward, Jalen Brunson said he had to be better, despite scoring 44 points. In the clutch, he was better Wednesday, making sure the Pacers wouldn’t come all the way back.
He scored on a driving scoop, then buried a left corner 3-pointer, and the Knicks survived, 119-113, to pull into a sixth-place tie with the Pacers in the Eastern Conference.
The night began with Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton in the spotlight, following recent critical remarks by MSG Knicks analyst Wally Szczerbiak, and Haliburton saying those comments had motivated him. The Knicks, however, did a nice job on Haliburton, limiting him to 15 points on 12 shots before he left the game late in the third quarter with a sore left knee.
Without him, the Pacers (23-19) staged a furious rally, nearly coming all the way back from 25 points down in the third quarter. The lead was only two after Buddy Hield’s 3-pointer with 3:10 remaining. But Brunson answered with the next seven points for the Knicks (23-19) and Quentin Grimes iced the game with a left-wing 3-pointer, as they avoided another ugly home loss.
Brunson poured in 34 points to lead the way, RJ Barrett added 27 and eight rebounds in his return from a lacerated right index finger and Grimes had 18. Hield scored 31 for the Pacers.
Barrett didn’t show much rust. He sank his first shot, a right-wing 3-pointer on a dribble handoff with Randle, and sank his first four 3-point attempts. Along with Brunson (19 first-half points), he keyed a terrific opening half that saw the Knicks lead by 12 just over seven minutes in and take a 21-point lead into the break.
Just as important as their offensive contributions was the job Grimes did on Haliburton, limiting the young star to nine points on nine shots. In 18 minutes, the Knicks outscored the Pacers by 20 points when Grimes was on the floor.
Simply put, it was one of their best first halves of the season. The Knicks hit 10 of their first 16 shots, sank nine 3-pointers over the first 24 minutes and held the Pacers to 4 of 19 shooting from deep. They were dominant on the glass, out-rebounding Indiana by 11, and unlike some recent fast starts, didn’t let their foot off the gas.
The halftime break didn’t slow down their momentum, either. Barrett immediately scored, and after Randle found him for an open right corner 3-pointer, the Knicks held a 24-point lead. But the Pacers made a run late in the third quarter, getting to within 13 on the strength of an 11-2 blitz. It was a 14-point game entering the final quarter, the game somewhat in doubt after feeling like a laugher for most of the evening.
It grew tense early in the fourth quarter, the Pacers reeling off the first eight points of the period and getting to within six on Jalen Smith’s offensive rebound and follow that forced a Tom Thibodeau timeout with 9:39 left. Indiana got as close as three, but the Knicks finally woke up. It started with an Immanuel Quickley 3-pointer that sparked the crowd and the lead was extended to nine on a Barrett basket inside with 7:16 to go.