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With series shifting home, ravaged Knicks attempt to hold on against rolling Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS — And then there were three.

Three games to decide the eventual underdog in an Eastern Conference Finals showdown against the presumptive conference-favorite Boston Celtics.

Three games to determine whether or not grit, willpower and, well, not much else, can push these depleted but determined Knicks past an Indiana Pacers team that’s evened the second-round series at two games apiece after falling into an 0-2 hole at Madison Square Garden.

Julius Randle is not walking through that door. Nor are Mitchell Robinson, Bojan Bogdanovic or, as of the Knicks’ 5:30 p.m. injury report, OG Anunoby, who will miss his third straight game due to a strained left hamstring for Tuesday’s Game 5.

Plus Jalen Brunson’s foot clearly isn’t fine — even though he repeated it was, twice, on his way off the podium after Game 4’s embarrassment — a development compounded both by a full-court Pacers defensive press and their hounding point of attack defender, Aaron Nesmith.

And still, like a championship boxer emerging victorious after a 12-round slugfest, the Knicks believe they have enough.

Enough to power past a deep Indiana Pacers team attempting to simultaneously grind the Knicks into the ground and run them out of the gym with a rotation stretching 10 deep.

The Knicks, who are down to just six players who earned regular rotation minutes in the second half of the season — eight if you count Alec Burks, a second-round revelation, and Jericho Sims, a fourth-string center thrust into the fire — are now underdogs, even though it’s now a best of three series with two games to be played back at The Garden.

The Knicks are 5-1 at home in these playoffs, feeding off of one of the best home crowds in all of sports.

With a roster stretched beyond its limits, these Knicks need their eighth man now more than ever.

But will it be enough?

Will the Knicks squeeze enough juice out of their own home fans to return to Indiana up 3-2 with a chance to close out in seven back at The Garden?

Will the Knicks be able to push this sputtering car any further despite a long past-due balance to pay at the gas station?

The Knicks, deny as they will, are running on empty: an empty roster and empty legs, though they are full of confidence and belief, because, well, they’ve done it before.

They faced this same kind of adversity in the regular season, when Randle and Anunoby went down leading into the All-Star break; when Anunoby went down, again, after the break; and when Isaiah Hartenstein’s Achilles flared up mid-season, leaving them center-less with Robinson on the mend.

The Knicks have been here before, but now,  the stakes are higher.

One of the greatest seasons in franchise history hangs in the balance, and a team that checked out and let the Pacers run up a 43-point Game 4 lead must now flush the loss and prepare for war.

Just like the Pacers didn’t want to head back to The Garden in a 3-1 hole, it would behoove these Knicks to handle business and stop the Pacers from going back to Indiana with an opportunity to close out on their own home floor.

There’s a difference, of course, between knowing better and doing better, and these Knicks, who’ve played beyond their means all season, now face the final boss: the man in the mirror.

Can they summon the strength to, as they’ve done all season, pull off the impossible just one more time?

This ravaged, run-down Knicks team has proven if you can do it once, you can do it once more, and two more wins are all this team needs to etch into history its best season since 2000.

Two more wins, however, seems like a long shot against a Pacers team sniffing out the blood of a wounded Knicks roster.

That won’t stop these Knicks from lacing them up, giving their best shot and letting the chips fall where they may.

For the Knicks, the time for excuses is never, and the time to fight one more night is now.


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