Knicks vs. Pacers Playoffs — Even in Loss, New York Team Gave Fans Life

Paul Cantor
8 min readMay 21, 2024

The New York Knicks lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday (May 19th) to the Indiana Pacers.

It was a fitting end to a wonderful season, a season which began much different than it ended, owing partially to a mid-season trade that sent RJ Barrett (the team’s 2019 #3 draft pick), and Immanuel Quickley (who finished second in ‘Sixth Man of the Year’ voting last season), to the Toronto Raptors. In exchange, the Knicks received OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn, the latter of whom was later dealt, along with backup shooting guards Evan Fournier and Quentin Grimes, to the Detroit Pistons, for Bojan Bogdanović and Alec Burks.

Normally, this many new players would pose a challenge to building team chemistry, but things were compounded by numerous injuries. Early in the season, starting center Mitchell Robinson suffered a stress fracture to his left ankle, keeping him out for much of the year. And in January, not long after making the trade for Anunoby — which appeared to make the team nearly unstoppable — All-NBA power forward, Julius Randle, suffered a dislocated shoulder in a game against the Miami Heat. Shortly after that, Anunoby himself went out with an elbow injury.

None of this would have mattered, however, had Jalen Brunson not become a star. For much of the season, Brunson played the lights out, setting all kinds of records (franchise high 47 points in a playoff game; 61 point career high) putting the team on his back as they made their playoff run. New York City was electrified by him and his former Villanova teammates Donte DiVincenzo and Josh Hart. DiVincenzo, acquired to be a back-up during the off-season, displayed lethal shooting and was unafraid to pull the trigger in the closing moments of a big game; and Hart had proven himself an indefatigable iron man, playing multiple 48-minute games, while cementing his status as one of the best rebounders the NBA had seen since Dennis Rodman.

And yet, in a perverse way, I was glad the season ended. I was glad the Pacers came out on Sunday afternoon and scored at a blistering pace, shooting a record 67% from the field, notching 130 points, dashing the hopes of Knicks fans worldwide. The Knicks were running on fumes.

To wit, between the beginning of their first-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers and the second-round finale against the Pacers, they had lost three players to injury — OG Anunoby (hamstring strain), Mitchell Robinson (re-injured ankle fracture) and Bojan Bogdanović (ankle and wrist surgery). In Game 6 of the Pacers series, Josh Hart suffered an ab strain that limited his effectiveness, and though both he and Anunoby played in Game 7, the former was a shell of himself and the latter returned, but could only muster five minutes of play before he was pulled by the coach for his own safety. Finally, midway through the 3rd quarter of Game 7, Jalen Brunson took a downward swipe against the Pacers shooting guard Tyrese Halliburton. The result: a fractured left hand.

The Knicks simply did not have enough bodies to remain competitive, and even had they pulled off a miracle by making it to the next round, they would have lost to the Celtics in four, if not five, games. The Celtics are a superior basketball team, built to sustain a long playoff run, with an elite defense and high-powered offense. The Knicks, even before the Brunson injury, had little left to pull from. The series was to start in two days. There was no way Anunoby would have been back to full health by then. Josh Hart would have still been hurting.

It was time. The Knicks were like a fighter refusing to down even though they are getting punished. This much was clear from at least Game 2. By then, they were already playing without Mitchell Robinson and Bojan Bogdanović. You’d watch them and think, if anyone else gets injured, the team would be too thin. And then OG went down. A bad sign. In the next game, the Knicks were competitive, but they lost on a last second 3-point heave by Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard, a lucky shot that seemed like a gut punch. You had the feeling they might not recover.

In Game 4, the team was blown out, destroyed in a game now dubbed the Mother’s Day Massacre. They got run off the floor in Indiana, and things did not look good. Then they came back and flattened Indiana for Game 5 in New York. But when they returned to Indiana for Game 6, and Josh Hart got the ab strain early in the game, all hope went out the window. A team already rail thin, was now starving for anything resembling some energy.

Finally, in Game 7, it was over.

It was a great season. A season of unexpected victories and a run that any New York Knicks fan would be proud of. The old Knicks returned — literally. Courtside during the games you’d see 90s Knicks like John Starks, Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell and even the captain himself, Patrick Ewing. You’d also see Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Bill Bradley and dozens of other former Knicks players. Perhaps one of the most joyous sights was the return of New York City’s prodigal son himself, Stephon Marbury.

This might mean nothing to most people, and if you are fortunate enough attend many Knicks games, you know some of these guys are not as distant from the franchise as they may appear. But in the midst of an iconic playoff run, the presence of this many Knick alumni in one place, at one time, was enough to turn anyone with even a passing remembrance of the team’s glory years suddenly nostalgic.

As this current Knicks team made its run, it felt like 1994 again. And for a moment, briefly, I was a child, back in my father’s home, in the downstairs on the purple tweed couch, shooting a basketball in the air as I watched the games. It was Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Playoffs, the Pacers and the Knicks, and John Starks was going up for a lay-up with his left-hand, the ball careening off the front of the rim, only to be caught by a rising Patrick Ewing, who slammed it back and sent the team to the Finals.

Sports are meaningless things. They are immaterial to regular life, their outcomes having no bearing on what we do or do not. If Ewing doesn’t slam that ball back in, and the Knicks lose the series, you are still you, needing to go to work tomorrow, or go to school, or be a father, a husband, a son or a brother. Unless you are betting, you will rarely make money watching a sports team, but you are almost guaranteed to lose some — either by spending money on attending games, purchasing merchandise, or the time it takes you to sit and watch your team.

There can only be one winner, so being a fan, for most people, usually ends in disappointment. And yet there is something profoundly rewarding about seeing a team you’re rooting for do well. On the court or on the field they become avatars for the dreams you’ve never seen realized, for all the accolades you’ve failed to receive. We watch sports not just to see our teams win, which we hope they do, but more importantly, to see players, elite athletes that they are, pursue the impossible.

Here is an example of what I mean. In life, there are some guaranteed certainties. You are born, you will live, you will die. How you live, however, is very much up to chance. And yet, so much of modern life is about removing this chance, or at the very least mitigating it, hedging against it — in other words, making a bet about the way things are supposed to turn out. So much of life is unknown, a game of lottery, in sense, but we make decisions we believe will impact us in ways so as to reduce that chance. Go to a good school, chances are better you will get a good job. Eat well, chances are stronger you will live a long, healthy life. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, get adequate sleep — you will reduce your chances of a million and one types of diseases (cancer, heart disease, diabetes, the list goes on).

The math is the math and intelligent minds use the math to make decisions. Increasingly, we let data, algorithms and A.I. lead the way. You check a restaurant’s reviews before you order, you look at Rotten Tomatoes scores before you pick a movie, you look at Instagram to find the best place to take a photo. You are hedging against chance. Life is short and you put faith in the numbers because what you want, more than anything, is certainty. You aren’t playing to lose, you’re playing to win.

At halftime of the Knicks game on Sunday you could see this in action. The Knicks were down 15 points, the Pacers were shooting an absolutely mind-boggling 70% of the field — one of the greatest offensives performances anyone had ever witnessed in a playoff game — and yet, directly behind me was a day drunk fan who kept saying to anyone who would listen that the Pacers could not remain this hot for the rest of the game.

“Teams don’t shoot 70% in the NBA,” he yelled. “It just doesn’t happen!”

To my right, another gentleman held up his phone. “You saw what happened with the Mavs last night, they were down 17 at the half,” he said. “Look — Draft Kings still has the Knicks a 3 point favorite. They know, this is how this team plays. They like to come from behind.”

These people were delusional, as fans typically are, afraid to confront reality, leaning on the math to support their belief that a team depleted of all its stars could somehow best one of the greatest offensive onslaughts since James Naismith first put a ball through a peach basket.

But that’s the thing with sports; you have to believe. Because belief is what makes it real. Sometimes the math is on your side, and sometimes it isn’t. The math hadn't truly been on the Knicks since Randle went down. Few predicted they would have the 2nd best record in the Eastern Conference. If you listened to the math, the team was done for the minute Randle’s shoulder popped out, a play-in team at best. Even I thought this.

Then they went on a run and now, in a deciding Game 7, they were here. It defied logic, this team, and that’s what you, as a person, always hoped for. Maybe you didn’t do it on the court, but you did it elsewhere, in a classroom or at your job or even in your community. The odds were the odds and in a way they were always against you, but you looked at a guy or a girl throwing a ball at a hoop, hoping with all hope that more bounces went one way than the other.

On Sunday, it didn’t go the Knicks way. The math was in their favor, they were predicted to win, if only because for so long they had defied the odds. But on this day, they didn’t. It was disappointing. But that is sports. And that is life, too. And this is why you watch. To remember that the game and you are not as different as they seem. It can go either way. You just have to get out there and play.



Paul Cantor

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.