Brunson, Hart lift Knicks by Sixers in 6, into East semis

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Friday, May 3, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- The Villanova boys did it again.

Jalen Brunson had 14 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter and hit Josh Hart for his 12th assist and what became the winning 3-pointer with 24 seconds remaining as the New York Knicks escaped from Wells Fargo Center with a thrilling 118-115 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 6 of this first-round series.

With the win, New York finally managed to dispatch the 76ers after six remarkable games, outscoring Philadelphia over those 293 minutes by a single point.

"They're a really good team," said guard Donte DiVincenzo, the other Villanova product on the Knicks and who helped limit Tyrese Maxey to 17 points on 18 shots in Thursday's victory. "They have really good players, and they're really well coached.

"They're not a normal 7-seed ... [but] you work, you stay together, and this is what happens."

For the Knicks, this is advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals for a second consecutive season -- a feat the franchise hasn't accomplished since 2000, when it did so for a ninth straight time. They will face off against the Indiana Pacersin a series that begins Monday at Madison Square Garden.

To get there, New York had to survive a grueling six games against a 76ers team featuring the league's reigning MVP in Joel Embiid, an emerging All-Star in Maxey and a deep, versatile roster that won roughly 80% of its games when Embiid was in uniform during the regular season.

But a meniscus injury kept Embiid out for two months, and it knocked the 76ers into the play-in tournament -- meaning they would face the Knicks in one of the marquee matchups of the playoffs' opening round.

Each game was a tight and taut affair -- and this one was no different.

Ultimately, though, it was Brunson who pushed New York over the line. The superstar guard scored 40 or more points in each of the final three games of the series -- something that no player had done since Michael Jordan in 1989 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Brunson scored at least 39 points over the final four games of the series, the first time any player had done that since Jordan in 1993, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"No matter what the situation is, we're going to attack it," Brunson said. "I just think that no matter who's in front of us, we're going to grind."

That was the case again in this game, as Hart -- who finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists in 46 minutes -- found himself standing with the ball at the top of the key with just under 30 seconds remaining, and no one within shouting distance of him, after Brunson drove into the paint and kicked the ball out to him.

After a brief hesitation, Hart -- whom Philadelphia had consciously left open throughout the series -- rose up and knocked down what proved to be the decisive shot of the series.

"Obviously they blitzed JB, so I knew Maxey was right there, right next to me, so my first instinct was, if they rotate, make a pass to [Donte]," Hart said. "And obviously the game plan was to not rotate to me. One second I saw they were not rotating, and I got my feet set and took an uncontested shot."

It was a fitting end to a wild series, one that saw every game come down to the closing moments. For Philadelphia, though, it marked a fourth straight crushing playoff defeat on its home floor in the season's closing moments. There was the Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in 2021, when Ben Simmons passed up an open dunk; the Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat the following season, when the Heat pulled away in the second half; and the Game 6 loss to the Boston Celtics last season, when Philadelphia melted down in the fourth quarter and then got routed in Boston in Game 7.

This time, though, things felt different, withJoel Embiidgoing for 39 points and 13 rebounds in 40 minutes and the team battling back after trailing by 22 in the first quarter.

Ultimately, though, the result was the same, and the 76ers are heading home for the summer after losing in the first or second round for a seventh consecutive season.

"I think the group of guys that we had this year, they were amazing," Embiid said. "And I still believe that if everything went right, we had a chance. But everything didn't go right."

To add insult to injury, the Knicks had a large contingent of their fans serenading them off the court -- though a smaller one than after Sunday's Game 4 victory, in part because Philadelphia's owners, plus former owner Michael Rubin, bought 2,000 tickets to give to first responders (and keep Knicks fans out).

"Man, it felt great," Hart said of winning in this building. "We knew this was going to be a tough environment. It was a little tougher than last game because it was 2,500 seats that were taken up. But we knew it was going to be a battle and a grind and got to give them credit.

"They made it a tough series, tough place to play."

Not tough enough, however, to prevent the Knicks from advancing. Now, New York will look to advance past the second round for the first time since that 2000 run to the East finals.

They will do so behind their trio of Villanova stars that has carried them to this point, and with a team that fully embodies the lunch-pail ethos of its coach, Tom Thibodeau.

"That's the thing I love about our team: It's a team, they're fighters," Thibodeau said. "They don't stay down."

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