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Jalen Brunson erupts for 44 points, Knicks take 3-2 series lead with blowout Game 5 win vs. Pacers



Why is Aaron Nesmith playing Twister on a basketball court?

It’s the fourth quarter of a blowout Knicks Game 5 victory over the Indiana Pacers, a decisive 121-91 result in favor of a Knicks team that bounced back from a 32-point loss in Game 4, and Jalen Brunson, who’d torched the Pacers’ best defensive option all night, went for the kill shot with his team up late.

Brunson advanced the ball past halfcourt with Nesmith awaiting him beyond the Knicks’ center-stage logo, then used a hesitation crossover combo to get the feisty Nesmith off-balance.

Brunson then snatched the ball behind his back, leaving Nesmith’s torso turned to the right with his head facing left, his hand planted into the ground and one leg skidding backwards.

The Madison Square Garden crowd erupted.

Brunson knifed through the lane and threw up a floater the Pacers goal-tended after touching the rim.

For Brunson and these Knicks, it was only a matter of time.

A matter of time before a tactician like the All-Star Knicks guard finally solved the problems posed by a feisty Pacers defense.

A matter of time before a Knicks team uncharacteristically out-rebounded in Games 3 and 4 of their second-round series finally got back to dominating a lesser opponent on the glass.

A matter of time before the Knicks, who dropped two games in a row at Indianapolis’ Gainbridge Fieldhouse — including an embarrassing loss in Game 4 on Sunday — returned home to wipe the Madison Square Garden floors with the only thing standing between New York and its best season since 2000.

The time is now for the Knicks, whose victory over the Pacers on Tuesday moves them one game closer to the Eastern Conference Finals, an eventual date with the Boston Celtics, the victor of which will take a trip to the NBA Finals.

Now, the Knicks can taste it.

For all the talk about this Tom Thibodeau-coached team running on fumes, they filled the tank once more to steamroll the Pacers on Tuesday night.

Brunson finished with a game-high 44 points on 18-of-35 shooting from the field. He tied his total scoring output in Games 3 and 4 combined with one explosive scoring performance at The Garden on Tuesday.

Brunson shot 16-of-43 from the field in two games in Indiana after the Pacers made the defensive adjustment, changing primary defensive assignments from the smaller Andrew Nembhard to the stockier Nesmith, who — along with a foot injury — kept the star Knicks guard in check as the Pacers evened the series with two consecutive wins on their own home floor.

He scored more points in the first half of the Knicks’ Game 5 victory alone (28) than he did in either of the two preceding games in Indiana.

And just like he solved the Philadelphia 76ers, who used a pair of 6-foot-8 wings in Nicolas Batum and Kelly Oubre Jr. to guard the point of attack in the first round, Brunson cracked the code against a Pacer defense he averaged close to 36 points per game against during the regular season.

His all but performance saved the Knicks’ season.

Had the depleted, downtrodden Knicks — without Julius Randle (shoulder surgery), Mitchell Robinson (ankle surgery), Bojan Bogdanovic (ankle surgery) and OG Anunoby (hamstring strain) succumbed to fatigue in Game 5 as they did in Game 4, they would have faced the unenviable feat of avoiding elimination in a win-or-go-home Game 6 in hostile Indianapolis territory on Friday.

Succumb the Knicks did not.

Instead, they will take a 3-2 series lead over the Pacers into two much-needed days of rest before a chance to eliminate the Pacers on their own home floor.

It’s what Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle hoped to avoid moments ahead of tipoff in the same arena his team lost the first two games of this series.

“[The 32-point win is] over with, and really I think what we’ve gotta remember is what happened here the first two games and the things we need to do better,” Carlisle said pregame on Tuesday. “This is an explosive environment. It’s really, very, very special. … And you’ve just got to understand that you have to be on your game with the little things so well because things happen here. [Isaiah] Hartenstein throws in a 50 foot shot to end the first half of Game 1. The ball’s gonna bounce funny unless you’re really doing the right things and doing everything possible to get loose balls, to block out and get rebounds, So we must do better in those two areas, and anything that’s in the past is really done with.”

Josh Hart bounced back from a no-show in Game 4 with a double-double — 18 points and 11 rebounds — and Miles McBride, who started in place of Precious Achiuwa, finished with 17 points plus hounding defense on Pacers’ All-Star Tyrese Haliburton. Haliburton finished with just 13 points and five assists on five-of-nine shooting from the field.

The Knicks got another boost from Alec Burks, who scored 18 points off the bench and has now tallied 52 points over the last three games.

After Thibodeau emptied his bench in defeat at the top of the fourth quarter in Game 4, he cleared his bench once again, this time in victory, with 2:04 to go in the fourth quarter of Game 5.

The Knicks now get two much-needed days off before Game 6 in Indianapolis, where the Pacers are sure to rally for a season-saving performance in front of their own home fans.

The stage is set for an epic Game 7 at The Garden with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals hanging in the balance.

Anunoby’s status for Game 7 is up in the air, as he’s progressed from pool workouts to light on-court work after sustaining a hamstring injury in Game 2.

The Knicks proved on Tuesday they don’t need Anunoby to handle this Pacers team.

The magic number is now one. One more win pushes these Knicks to their best season of the century.

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