The Knicks, despite Game 7 loss, are a franchise with a future: 'We've built a foundation'

NEW YORK — With three minutes left in Game 7, Josh Hart did something he almost never does. He moved slowly.

He’d just discarded Andrew Nembhard, sending the Pacers guard to the floor while jockeying for rebounding position. In the process, he picked up his sixth foul, granting him an early exit — all too rare for the iron man who was playing through the abdominal strain he suffered in Game 6 and who, for the moment, leads the 2024 postseason in minutes played — and one last walk across the hardwood before the long summer into which Indiana sent the Knicks with a 130-109 blowout in a somber Sunday matinee at Madison Square Garden.

Hart made his way across the timeline, over to the Knicks bench, receiving praise and plaudits — from the sold-out crowd of 19,812 chanting his name, from head coach Tom Thibodeau, from Fat Joe sitting courtside, from his standing teammates — before taking a seat at the end of New York’s bench.

“I came here last year — I think it was like my fourth team, my sixth coach, fourth franchise. I wanted a home,” said Hart, who finished with 10 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals before fouling out. “And obviously the front office believed in me and gave me a contract, and Thibs played me, and the city embraced me. For me, that means a lot, and the only way I can repay them is to put my body on the line, give everything I have, and leave my heart on that court.”

Hart’s path took him past OG Anunoby, the late-December addition whose arrival seemed to transform the Knicks from a scrappy hopeful into a bona fide contender. The Knicks had gone 26-5 with Anunoby in the lineup before a hamstring strain knocked him out for Games 3 through 6 of this second-round series against Indiana. He returned for a do-or-die Game 7, hoping to will his balky wheel to push New York over the hump, past the Pacers and to their first Eastern Conference finals since 2000.

“I just wanted to play,” Anunoby said. “I wanted to try. Like, at least try to help my teammates. We’ve been working really hard, so I wanted to be out there.”

He did, but he couldn’t stay. Despite making his first two shots, it was clear immediately that Anunoby couldn’t move like his All-Defense, corner-3-stroking self. Thibodeau took him out after four minutes and 41 seconds, and never put him back in.

“The way he was moving, I didn't want to risk it,” Thibodeau said.

Hart sat next to Julius Randle, the Knicks’ two-time All-Star power forward, who has been in street clothes since January and was officially ruled out for the season for the past six weeks — a potential source of auxiliary offense, rebounding, physicality and playmaking that New York sorely missed as it kept losing pieces during this playoff run.

Like two others Hart didn’t pass on the bench — center Mitchell Robinson and forward Bojan Bogdanović — because they’re recuperating from season-ending surgeries. Or a third who wasn’t there: superstar point guard Jalen Brunson, who missed the final 15 minutes of Game 7 after an ill-fated third-quarter swipe.

“In the third quarter, I went to swipe the ball on Tyrese, and I hit his leg,” Brunson said. “... I thought I just jammed it, to be honest with you. And I looked down and knew something was wrong.”

After briefly heading back to the Knicks' locker room, Brunson checked back in for a 14-second stint, but then quickly checked back out with just over three minutes to go in the third quarter. He returned to the locker room; he wouldn’t return to the game.

“You know, Jalen, when he went out in the third, I knew something was awry,” Thibodeau said.

It turned out to be the final blow for New York: a fractured left hand. Game over. Season over.

There would be no thrilling miracle resurrection for the Knicks on this Sunday. With their MVP candidate getting fitted for a cast on his shooting hand, with their defense utterly incapable of slowing down a Pacers team in the midst of the greatest single-game shooting performance in NBA playoff history, they relied on Donte DiVincenzo and little-used reserve Alec Burks (26 points in 27 minutes off the bench, one off his playoff career high) to keep the offense afloat … and, for a second there, they actually stayed afloat.

“I don't want to discredit [the Pacers] at all, but with everything that happened, I think it was an 11, 12-point game with six minutes left, five minutes left,” said DiVincenzo, who scored a game-high 39 points on 21 shots, including a 9-for-15 mark from 3-point range. “And that's our mindset as an organization: It really does not matter who's out there for us, because every single person is going to give 110%. We have a system. We have core principles that, if you follow and you believe in, you give yourself a shot, every single game.”

After a late 12-3 closing run by the Pacers, though, New York no longer had a shot. The Knicks had finally reached the end of the line.

“I thought guys gave everything they had, and that's all you could ask,” Thibodeau said. “It was a battle all year. And there was nothing left to give at the end.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 19: Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks walks across the court before Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Second Round Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 2024 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Jalen Brunson has given the franchise hope this season. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

As difficult as it was to get his arms around the entirety of the season — a campaign that saw the Knicks win 50 games for the first time in 11 years, win a first-round series in consecutive years for the first time since 1999 and 2000, and watch Brunson blossom into All-Star, top-five MVP and (likely) All-NBA status — Thibodeau projected acceptance in his postgame news conference. There was disappointment, yes; without a game plan to draw up, adjustments to tinker with and tape to grind, what is the sport’s preeminent masochist to do? But beneath the sadness over not advancing to the NBA’s final four lay something like gratitude.

“As a coach, you always measure, ‘What does the group have? Are we getting everything out of the group?’” Thibodeau said. “The only thing you could ask for is that everyone puts forth their best effort. And we got that, all year, from these guys. I think what goes along with that is peace of mind — knowing that you did your best. That's all you could ask for. A lot of teams, I think, would have folded. They didn't.”

When appraised of his coach’s comments, though, Brunson reacted with a taciturn disbelief.

“He said we’re ‘at peace?’” he asked.

Given the “peace of mind” re-casting, Brunson took a lengthy pause.

“I would say that, I love the fact of how we fought, night in and night out,” said Brunson, who finished his all-time postseason heater — five 40-point games, the most in a single playoff run since LeBron James in 2018 — with 17 points on 6-for-17 shooting and 9 assists before that season-ending swipe. “I just love this group of guys that we have. Their mindset, our mindset as a group, was strong.”

At a certain point, though, that mindset — the collective belief, reiterated to a man, that whoever’s healthy is enough to win — wasn’t enough. Not to overcome an Indiana side that seized control of Game 7 early, scoring a blistering 39 points on 21 possessions in the first quarter, and never let it go, shooting a scorching 53-for-79 (67.1%) from the field and 13-for-24 (54.2%) from 3-point range as a team. Six Pacers scored in double figures Sunday, led by All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, who opened his account with 14 points in a three-minute span in the first quarter as Indiana built the lead it would never relinquish.

"I knew today is Game 7,” said Haliburton, who finished with 26 on 10-for-17 shooting, including a 6-for-12 mark from long range, to go with six assists in the biggest game of his career thus far. “Unload the clip, have no regrets. I would hate to be pissed all summer about not shooting the ball today.”

Instead, the visitors leave happy, while Brunson leaves his home floor with a cast, a brace and — for all he accomplished on an individual level during the best season of his career — an awful lot to think about after Sunday’s bitter ending.

“You can say I got hurt in Game 7 [but] I wasn't playing well in Game 7,” Brunson said. “We had a 2-0 and a 3-2 lead. It's just hard to look at things individually when you don't help your team.”

Later, when asked why he didn’t see the season as a success, Brunson added: “Did we win the championship? Did we get close? So, no. That’s just my mindset. That’s just how it is.”

That, of course, is a blindingly narrow assessment. Even the most critical observer would have a hard time keeping a straight face while suggesting that Brunson, who all but carried the Knicks to the No. 2 seed and past Philadelphia in Round 1, hasn’t helped this team. The looks on those observers’ faces don’t matter to Brunson, though; the only one he cares about is the one he sees when he looks in the mirror.

“I go into the summer, every year, looking back on how I can be better as a player,” he said. “To be the [most] complete player I can be. There’s obviously gonna be a lot of things, Xs-and-Os-wise, physically, and other stuff I can do to be better. I think the most important thing that I need to do is to continue just to strive for perfection. Strive for perfection, knowing that I’m never going to get there.

“My mindset is just that I need to be better every single day. I don't care what I've done as a player. It means nothing.”

That mindset has helped Brunson reach heights few would’ve imagined for him, even while he was winning national championships at Villanova. The evaluation it arrived at, though, isn’t necessarily one that the Knicks or their fans share; to them, this season has meant something. Namely, that after a quarter-century of rushing to a mirage in the desert only to wind up choking on sand, there might really be something to believe in on Broadway.

“I think [the future is] very bright,” Hart said. “I think there's hope for what we're building. I think that's the biggest thing. Obviously, the offseason, it's a business. There’s decisions that's going to be made. There's guys going to be going in, going out, or whatever it is, but I think we’ve built a foundation of a franchise that is going to be fighting — a franchise that is moving in the right direction.”

Continuing that path will require some work in the offseason. Anunoby will all but certainly decline his $19.9 million player option to hit unrestricted free agency. He’ll be joined there by center Isaiah Hartenstein, who entered the season as a respected backup and exits it as a two-way linchpin whom Thibodeau said “had a monster season for us” with his rebounding and complementary playmaking. Retaining them could cost the Knicks a king’s ransom; letting them walk, though, could prove even more costly.

The decisions don’t end there. Several Knicks are eligible for extensions of their current contracts — most notably Brunson, whose four-year, $104 million contract now profiles as one of the NBA’s biggest bargains, and who, if he chooses, could sign a four-year, $165.5 million re-up through the end of the 2028-29 season.

While Brunson summarily dismissed questions about his contract status after Game 7 — “I’ll talk about that another time,” he said — Thibodeau at least briefly entertained an inquiry about extending his own contract, which reportedly has one year left on it.

“That's something that my agent will take care of,” he said. “The Knicks have been great to me. So, yeah. This is where I want to be.”

And after two straight winning seasons that have brought high-stakes springtime basketball back to MSG, breathing fresh life into a long-moribund franchise, Thibs might not be alone.

The Knicks enter the summer with an All-NBA point guard, a roster full of hard-nosed players who fit their coach’s mentality to a T, and a pair of first-round picks in June’s draft, plus plenty more in the cupboard. There’s an opportunity here. All that’s left is to seize it.

“I think we’re making positive strides,” Brunson said. “We just need to make more.”