Knicks’ ‘next man up’ resilience finally hit its breaking point

For the Knicks fan, there is no greater euphoria than the basketball team you love defending the Garden the way Willis and Clyde defended it in the biggest possible Game 7 54 years ago.

That was 7th Heaven. On Seventh Avenue.

This 7th Heaven was supposed to be many of the Knicks of yesteryear fueling a fire and a roar they might have heard in Indiana.

This 7th Heaven was supposed to be New York willing a battered, depleted team on fumes to tomorrow.

This 7th Heaven was supposed to end in a Bring On the Celtics! jubilation and celebration spilling out onto the streets for the team that refused to lose.

No 7th Heaven.

Donte DiVincenzo reacts on the court during the third quarter. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Hell instead.

And of course Pacers 130, Knicks 109 ended with Jalen Brunson forced out for the fourth quarter with a fractured left hand which he appeared to suffer hitting it on a fast-breaking Tyrese Haliburton’s knee.

Fractured left hand, fractured dream.

“I didn’t play well enough to help my team move forward,” he would say.

And when Brunson, who blossomed into New York’s biggest star, was asked why he had indicated that this was not a successful year, he said: “Did we win a championship? Did we get close?”

Not close enough.

Knicks fans react to the Knicks losing to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semi-finals playoffs in front of Madison Square Garden. Michael Nagle

The Garden crowd had chanted “MVP,” implored him to find a way, the way he had so many times across the season, and he could not. They chanted his name at the end of the game. It was a raging love affair all season long, with good reason.

“They have been nothing but amazing,” Brunson said, “to myself, to this team, to my family … it’s really cool. Just so thankful for them and everything, and on the nights that we needed energy they provided it for us. I can’t really put into words of what they mean to me but they deserve much more than what we were able to do this playoff run, they deserve much more than that.”

He was 6-for-17 from the field — including 1-for-3 from 3-point range — for 17 points with nine assists.

“I would say there’s pros and cons to how I played,” Brunson said. “I played well individually at some points in time during the playoffs. The cons are that I didn’t play well enough to help my team move forward. You can say I got hurt in Game 7, I wasn’t playing well in Game 7 … we had a 2-0 and a 3-2 lead, so it’s hard to look at things individually when you don’t help your team.”

The Pacers were the looser, smarter, tougher … and healthier team.

The news that Josh Hart (abdominal strain) and OG Anunoby (hamstring) would play did not faze the Pacers, and did not inspire the Knicks. Anunoby (five points) would play only five minutes and was a defensive liability. Brave Hart (10 points, eight rebounds, five assists in 37 minutes) did what he could.

The Knicks needed the MVP Brunson, an MVP Brunson to have the kind of day for the ages that Clyde Frazier had in his championship Game 7 against the Lakers.

On an afternoon when Donte DiVicenzo (39 points, nine 3-pointers) and Alec Burks (26 points in 27 minutes) roused the Garden crowd and gave it hope against hope, the best version of Brunson very well could have gotten the Knicks to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Pacers cut off the head of the Knicks snake by committing to get the ball out of Brunson’s hands.

His errant pass-turnover led to a Haliburton layup that made it Pacers 82, Knicks 70 not long after the Knicks had cut a 22-point first-half deficit to 73-67.

At which point there had been bedlam in the Garden.

The Monster of Madison Square Garden had awakened.

But only temporarily.

A five-second inbounds violation and a stolen inbounds pass hardly helped the cause in the third quarter.

Brunson had converted a three-point play against Andrew Nembhard with 53.7 seconds left in the half, and here they were chanting “MVP,” before Pascal Siakam rejected his driving layup just before intermission. The Pacers had hit 22 of their first 27 shots, most of them too easy, and were 9-for-10 from downtown Indianapolis. They had shot 76.3 percent from the field in the first half — the highest mark by any team in any playoff half in the NBA’s play-by-play era.

Pascal Siakam #43 puts up a shot as New York Knicks guard Miles McBride #2 is too late to defend during the third quarter. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

The Garden was chanting “Dee-Fense” early and often and the Knicks never listened.

Twenty-four minutes of season left. Down by 15. Still time for MVP Brunson.

He never appeared.

He had briefly left the court with 4:06 left in the third quarter.

“I thought I just jammed it, to be honest with you,” Brunson said. “I looked down and knew something was wrong.”

And then the basketball gods made sure he could not.

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

Someone asked Brunson what it was like for him as a helpless spectator, unable to try to prevent the season from expiring.

“It sucked,” he said, and then he said it again.

Knicks guard Josh Hart #3 and New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson #11 on the bench during the second quarter. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

At the worst possible time, he was Next Man Down.

“As a group we had that mindset Next Man Up and we really took it to heart,” Brunson said.

It was Brunson’s cold-blooded designs on overcoming and winning that mitigated the debilitating effects of one Next Man Up after the next.

Wait Til Next Year. Again.

“I think the most important thing that I need to do is to continue just to strive for perfection,” Brunson said. “Knowing that I’m never gonna get there, my mindset is that I just need to be better every single day. I don’t care what I’ve done as a player, it means nothing. I need to be better.”

This was supposed to be a Garden party.

Garden potty instead.

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