Mike Vaccaro

Mike Vaccaro


Knicks fought until there was ‘nothing left to give’ in bitter end to captivating season

By the end, most of the faithful were still in the house, even if they couldn’t wait for the final buzzer to put them all out of their misery. Josh Hart drew his sixth foul, three minutes before the end. The Knicks were down by 17. The season was inching toward the abyss. And still they stood. Still they roared.

They cheered for Hart, yes, who grimaced his way through 37 minutes with an abdominal injury that, in January, would probably keep him out three weeks. But they were also cheering for his buddy, Jalen Brunson, who left the game for good with 3:02 to go in the third, his hand fractured, his season over 15 minutes earlier than the rest, one last sling to add to the pile of casts, trusses and walking boots.

The Knicks Jalen Brunson left the game early with a broken hand. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

And they were cheering for this run, for this ride, for this season that ended in the crush of a 130-109 loss to the Pacers, who pitched a near-perfect game, Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. They started making shots and kept making shots, 76 percent of them in the first half and 67.1 percent for the game.

(And consider the irony: a team so deeply forged by the culture of Villanova ran into a team that shot almost as well as Villanova famously did in 1985, when it took down Georgetown.)

At that clip, it might not have mattered if Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson were dressed, if OG Anunoby could’ve chipped in more than his five minutes and five points, his presence a momentary injection of inspiration. At that clip, it might not have mattered if Clyde Frazier, Bernard King and Patrick Ewing were dressed, too.

“It was a battle all year,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “There was nothing left to give at the end.”

The Pacers don’t have to apologize for winning this game, not the way they played, not the way they took it to the Knicks right from the start. And the Knicks don’t have to apologize for losing it. Look: they aren’t the first team whose destiny was derailed by injuries.The Bucks lost Giannis Antetokounmpo the last two years. The Nets lost two-thirds of their Big 3 in 2021. Celtics fans, for all their banners, still lament 1973 when they lost John Havlicek to a ruined arm. There are plenty of others.

“It’s all part of the game,” Brunson said.

“It wasn’t in the cards for us,” Hart said.

OG Anunoby sits on the bench after giving it a go in the early minutes of Game 7 Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Still, it’s going to be difficult to look back at this season — in a few weeks, when looking back won’t hurt as much — and not wonder how things might’ve shaken out if they could have kept everyone together.

As much as New York fell hard for this team, the truth is they fell hard for each other, too. They kept picking each other up. They won 50 games and a playoff round despite not being whole for one day after Robinson went down Dec. 9. And their coach certainly fell hard for this team, which bought what he was selling right from Day 1.

“I’m disappointed that we aren’t going to play anymore together,” Thibodeau said. “It’s a great group to be around and they gave everything they had.”

Said Brunson: “We didn’t use excuses and we kept finding ways. That was our mindset. I’m so glad we had that mindset. The outcome isn’t what we wanted but the way we fought … it was awesome.”

And then: “I love this group of guys that we have.”

Josh Hart played through injury in Game 7. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

There was one final rush when the Knicks invited one last flash of thunder. They sliced a 22-point deficit to 15 by halftime. Across the first four minutes of the third they chopped that to six, 73-67, and when the Pacers answered Donte DiVincenzo knocked down one of his nine 3-pointers to cut it to 77-70, 6:43 left in the third.

Then Myles Turner turned the ball over and the Garden reached a level of frenzy that tried to levitate the Knicks all the way back. But Deuce McBride turned the ball over, the first of three Knicks turnovers in three possessions that turned the game sideways one last time — especially the middle one.

That’s when he surrendered the ball to Tyrese Haliburton, who laid in two of his 26 points and as he did jammed Brunson’s hand. It took a few minutes before Brunson realized it was worse than that. By the time he walked back to the dressing room for good, the lead was 18, and the rest of the day was an agonizing walk down the gangplank for the 19,812 who tried so desperately to believe.

“The fans deserve so much more than we were able to do,” said Brunson, who wasn’t in the mood to grade the season on a curve.

Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo reacts to the Game 7 loss. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

“Did we win a championship?” he asked. “Did we get close?”

For the 51st consecutive year the answer to the first question was “no,” and for the 50th time in 51 years the answer to the second was also “no.” It’s OK to be bitter about how this ended. When you want something so badly — and all of New York wanted a few swings against the Celtics — it doesn’t digest easily. It was still a hell of a run. Still a hell of a ride.