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With Pacers on the ropes, Knicks fans believe team will reach first Eastern Conference Finals since 2000


The Madison Square Garden faithful had plenty to cheer about during the Knicks’ Game 5 blowout win against the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night.

They cheered after each of Isaiah Hartenstein’s 12 offensive rebounds. They roared even louder as Jalen Brunson cruised to another 40-point performance. And they exited MSG with all the confidence in the world that their hometown Knicks are well on their way to the first Eastern Conference Finals since 2000.

“The fans, it’s freaking nuts,” said Mani Bajwa. “They scare me and I’m on the same side.”

Bajwa, and his friend Sulaiman Rahman, were two of 20,000 plus in attendance for Tuesday’s revenge win after witnessing an awful Mother’s Day embarrassment that took place in Indiana Sunday. The ugly loss is already a distant memory, though.

Bajwa, who has fallen in love with the Knicks and the area since moving to New York City last winter, believes the Pacers have run out of luck. And another game in a hostile an environment isn’t enough to force a Game 7.

“Oh, they’re closing it out next game,” Bajwa said with confidence before exiting the arena.

And his confidence on why the Knicks will advance? No. 11 in orange and blue.

“He might be the best player in the playoffs,” Bajwa said about Brunson. “Everyone talks about SGA [Shai Gilgeous-Alexander] and Ant [Anthony Edwards] but Brunson is carrying this team.”

That’s the tone around The Garden. Whether it’ll take a gutsy road win or a Game 7 win at home, Knicks fans feel the Brunson-led team can’t lose as long as the star is on his game.

Twenty-three-year-old college student Rafael Nadal — yes the same name as the Spanish tennis legend — isn’t certain on how many games it’ll take, but he knows the first Eastern Conference Finals berth of his lifetime is approaching.

Knicks fan Rafael Nadal (l.) waving Knicks flag during Tuesday's Game 6. (Photo Courtesy of Victoria Nadal).
Knicks fan Rafael Nadal (l.) waving Knicks flag during Tuesday’s Game 6. (Photo Courtesy of Victoria Nadal).

“Who knows,” Rafael said when asked if the Knicks can wrap the series up in six games. “I have faith. I know they can close it down. I know we don’t have OG [Anunoby]… but we got this. I feel like the rotation is better. Alec Burks is getting more minutes. He’s getting some confidence. If we really want to, we got this.”

Rafael enjoyed the Game 6 victory with his father and younger sister, Victoria. He came straight to MSG in his cap and gown after graduating from nearby NYU. Game 6 was obviously a game he couldn’t miss with the colors of orange and blue flowing through his bloodstream.

“My dad is a Knicks fan. My grandpa was a Knicks fan. My great grandfather was a Knicks fans as well,” he said.

“And as a result, our whole entire family are Knicks fans,” Victoria added.

While enjoying a comfortable second-half lead, Rafael reminisced on the good — and mostly not so good — times of being a young Knicks fan.

“I got to see the Melo days, which were great. I got to see the Porzingis days, which were … OK,” he said. “But overall it’s been suffering for the past few years.”

He mentioned the immediate shift that began in the front office after the Julius Randle signing in 2019 and the subsequent deals that followed. But there’s one that saved the franchise and actually instilled hope in a city dying for another postseason run.

“And when Jalen Brunson came in,” Rafael said with a smile. “When you start seeing the leadership. It’s not only him being a guard. It’s him being a leader and really carrying his players forward. It makes everyone so much happier. It’s been such an enjoyable experience. Its been such a great way that I can actually bond with my dad.”

Brunson followed up the Game 4 dud by converting on 18-of-35 shots on Tuesday. The MSG hardwood was his dance floor. The Pacers sent different matchups at him, but to no avail. Aaron Nesmith had success on the Knicks All-Star Sunday, but ended up on the floor while trying to guard Brunson in the fourth quarter Tuesday.

The play ended with Brunson being awarded two points on a goaltending violation. But it still left Queens teacher John Torres in awe.

“He’s the heart and soul. He’s having a good night, there’s a good chance the Knicks are going to have a good night,” said John, 35, who attended Game 5 with his twin brother, Jimmy.

Tuesday’s blowout win was the first playoff game for the Queens natives. Watching their team get revenge on Tyrese Haliburton and the Pacers was the only thing on their minds.

“That’s why we’re here. We knew the Knicks had to show up tonight.”

Getting a win at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Friday’s Game 6 would add to their joy. But even if the series goes seven games, John isn’t worried.

“That’s tough, man. That’s tough,” John said about the Knicks getting a series-clinching Game 6 win. “You gotta go back to Indiana. Hopefully we can close it out there because we got the injuries and that’ll get time for our players to get a little rest.

“But if we got to come back to The Garden, I like the odds of that.”

John said there’s a “good chance” they’ll return for Game 7, if necessary. But Jimmy will have to pick up the tab next time around.

“I bought these seats. He’s gonna have to buy the next one,” John said laughing.



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