Feels like 2000? Knicks, Brunson on precipice of first Eastern Conference Finals in more than two decades

Knicks star Jalen Brunson celebrates
New York Knicks’ Jalen Brunson (11) gestures to fans after making a three-point shot during the second half of Game 5 in an NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in New York. The Knicks won 121-91. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

In a place far too familiar for the Knicks this year, they found themselves with their backs against the wall ahead of a pivotal Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers.

With the series tied 2-2, New York did what they have done all year. The Knicks threw the first punch, and then every other punch after that to secure a dominant 30-point victory and take a commanding 3-2 lead in the series — putting themselves on the brink of their first Eastern Conference Finals since 2000.

With some of that same Knicks team in attendance, head coach Tom Thibodeau, a former assistant coach on that 2000 team, took time to reflect on the parallels between the two squads.

“I think the togetherness and tenacity are similar,” said Thibodeau. “The commitment to each other, that’s similar. I think the toughness aspect of it is similar.”

The parallels between the two teams are uncanny. Each team finished second place in the East with a 50-32 record. A young star guard named Allan Houston had their breakout season, earning their first All-Star appearance. There was even a Brunson on each team as Jalen’s father, Rick, appeared in 37 games for the Knicks that season. 

This current Knicks team has put themselves on the precipice of something many people thought was inconceivable at the start of the season. Add on top of those injuries and heavy rotation minutes this Knicks team has been forced to endure, it is remarkable they are even here. 

“I think as a team we have the same mindset no matter what,” said Brunson. “We know what’s at stake, we know what we have to do and we’re gonna figure it out.”

Brunson had perhaps the most pressure on his shoulders to respond after his Game 4 performance, his worst of the playoffs so far, scoring only 18 points on 6-of-17 shooting from the field. He answered the bell and then some, with a signature 44-point performance, his fifth 40+ point performance this postseason.

Brunson is now one game shy of tying Bernard King’s franchise record for six 40+ point games in a postseason.

While it would be easy for Brunson to get caught up in the fanfare of another personal achievement, he has kept his focus dialed in on winning the next game.

“One thing that I’ve learned in the playoffs is one game does not have any effect on the next… Honestly, once we leave here tonight this is over with. It’s all about how do we prepare for Game 6,” said Brunson.

As for Brunson’s supporting cast, they delivered one of their most complete performances of the season.

New York Knicks’ Isaiah Hartenstein, left, dunks the ball in front of Indiana Pacers’ Myles Turner during the first half of Game 5 in an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Isaiah Hartenstein was a menace on the offensive glass, tying a playoff franchise record with 12 offensive rebounds. New York demolished Indiana on the glass as a whole, with a +24 rebounding margin.

“I just wanted to be more physical,” said Hartenstein postgame. “I feel like the games in Indiana, I wasn’t playing like myself. I wasn’t being physical… That was the biggest thing I wanted to do.”

The Knicks now find themselves just 48 minutes away from the Eastern Conference Finals. With two chances to get the job done, Thibodeau wants to keep his team focused on one game at a time and their collective mentality.

“You need a commitment from the team to each other to get that done,” Thibodeau said.