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Pacers know it’s going to be tough task to slow Jalen Brunson again

Josh Hart knew better.

Jalen Brunson averaged just 22.3 points in four games against the Philadelphia 76ers during the regular season and struggled through the first two games of their first-round playoff series before scoring 39 or more in Games 3 through 6.

Would it be safe, then, to assume first-round logic would translate to Round 2?

That Brunson would outpace his own scoring in the second round against an Indiana Pacers team he averaged 35.7 points per game against in three regular season matchups?

“Nah,” Hart said on May 5. “I don’t assume nothing. J.B.’s a guy who’s going to be aggressive. He’s a guy that can score the ball at a high level.

“But in the playoffs, everything’s unpredictable.”

Who could have predicted this?

Brunson, who has been virtually unguardable in these playoffs, has struggled to make shots in three of his last four games: a 10-of-26 for 26 points effort in a Game 3 loss, a 6-of-17 shooting performance in a 32-point blowout loss in Game 4, then a 2-of-13 first half, including his first scoreless quarter of the playoffs, in the Pacers’ season-saving Game 6 victory on Friday.

The All-Star Knicks guard attributed his struggles finding the bottom of the net equally to his own missing makeable shots and a Pacers defense adjusting with each game played.

“They’ve been doing a great job all series of making adjustments and everything, and it’s made me adjust as well,” he said after the game. “So, obviously I was shooting shots I normally make and I missed. It was a mixture of both. Mixture of me missing shots and a mixture of them playing really well.

“They try to make things difficult. And I have to adjust as well. [They] show me different looks, and I have to do a better job of reading it. I just can’t be what I was for the first 40 minutes of the game.”

Brunson’s fourth quarter in Game 6, however, made Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle forget about his 2-of-13 shooting start.

He scored 12 points on 3-of-4 shooting from the field and 2-of-2 shooting from three-point range in his final 6:41 on the floor before Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau pulled the starters and emptied his bench.

“He ended up with 31 points. So I’m not gonna celebrate something that happened for one half of a game,” Carlisle said after his team’s series-extending victory. “I mean look: This guy is doing some historic stuff in the playoffs, and he went on a crazy run in the last three minutes. He was in there. He hit two or three 3s and got fouled once or something.”

Brunson’s coach and his teammates are confident he will bounce back at Madison Square Garden after a rough shooting start at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

“He’s gonna work the game. He’ll figure it out,” said Thibodeau. “There was a physicality to the game, which is fine. We knew that would be there. And then I thought in the second half, I thought he got to everything he wanted to get to.”

Donte DiVincenzo said both Brunson and the team will be better after reviewing the Game 6 film on Saturday.

“They’re gonna throw a million different defenses at him. He’s seen everything,” DiVincenzo said. “He has confidence in his shot. We have confidence in his shot. So make or miss, he’s gonna make the right play. And I think watching the film, just make adjustments.”

The Pacers believe they did a good job defending Brunson on Friday.

In fact, three of Brunson’s subpar shooting games came after the Pacers made the adjustment to name Aaron Nesmith his primary defender over the smaller Andrew Nembhard.

Brunson couldn’t find a scoring rhythm early in Game 6, and the Knicks were unable to climb out of a hole they dug entering the half.

“I thought we did a good job. I thought Double-A [Nesmith] did a good job of showing his hands,” said Pacers All-Star Tyrese Haliburton, who also credited his team for not allowing the Knicks to dominate second-chance opportunities. “I thought we did a great job of not fouling and finishing possessions, which has been the biggest thing.”

Carlisle, however, used to coach Brunson when both were with the Dallas Mavericks three seasons ago.

Their paths parted then re-united, this time as enemies battling to punch a ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals, and Carlisle is not taking his former star lightly.

Even if his defense held Brunson to one of his worst shooting starts of the season on Friday.

“There’s no resting on him. There’s no feeling good about anything with him,” Carlisle said. “It’s an endless task when you face a player like him in a series like this. So we’ve gotta brace for Sunday. We know the kind of effort he’s gonna bring on Sunday. We know the kind of effort that they’re gonna bring on Sunday. And we must, we must be ready.”

COSTLY GARDEN PARTY

The average ticket price for Game 7 between the Knicks and Pacers at The Garden on Sunday is a whopping $959, according to Vivid Seats.

Game 2 at MSG had an average ticket price of $696, and Game 5 came in just behind at $633 per ticket.

Fans are also traveling an average of over 250 miles to The Garden to watch the Knicks attempt to clinch their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2000, and the crowd is projected to be 98% Knicks fans, according to Vivid Seats, though the projection seems 2% short.

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