Jalen Brunson struggles in first half, Pacers force Game 7 with 116-103 victory against Knicks

INDIANAPOLIS — Maybe it was the foot Jalen Brunson injured in Game 2.

Maybe after touching earth in embarrassing fashion in Game 5, Aaron Nesmith got his revenge against the Knicks’ All-Star guard in Game 6.

Maybe the decreasing number of bodies plus the rising number of minutes are finally taking a toll.

Maybe it was the painful abdominal issue Josh Hart was dealing with that rendered him ineffective and eventually forced him out of the game.

Or maybe it was the moment.

Maybe the opportunity to close out the Indiana Pacers on their own home floor proved too much.

Maybe it was just a bad game. A really bad game. The type of game that’s become atypical, if not unbecoming of the player whose ascent to potential superstardom propelled the Knicks to the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed.

Maybe it was complacency.

Maybe the Knicks, who might have the best home-court advantage in all of sports, believe in just that — the power of the Madison Square Garden crowd — and didn’t empty the tank at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Friday because, well, there’s always another chance to close it out at home on Sunday.

Or maybe it was the worst-case scenario for the Knicks and their playoff hopes.

Maybe, just maybe, the Pacers figured something out.

Maybe the Pacers’ 32-point shellacking of the Knicks in Game 4 wasn’t a fluke after all. Nor is their home-court advantage.

The truth is a compilation of the maybes for a Knicks team now facing elimination after a disappointing 116-103 loss to the Pacers in Game 6 on Friday.

“I thought we started the game well and we got up five and then we didn’t close out the first quarter well,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said postgame. “Didn’t close out the second quarter well, then we had a surge to start the third, cut it to five, then two loose balls that they recovered and turned it into two threes. We’re gonna have to play a lot better.”

The truth begins with Brunson, who must turn in a generational performance if the Knicks are to continue their season beyond a second consecutive second-round playoff appearance.

Brunson turned in a rare no-show through an entire half of basketball. By the time he got it going in the third quarter, the Pacers had not only seized momentum, but buried the Knicks beneath a double-digit deficit they could not climb out of in the second half.

Brunson, who scored 44 points in a blowout victory over the Pacers in Game 5, couldn’t find the bottom of the net if it came with GPS tracking for the first half on Friday.

“You don’t get — he’s gonna work the game,” Thibodeau said. “He’ll figure it out. 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.”

The star Knicks guard finished the night with 31 points on 11-of-26 shooting from the field but shot just 2 of 13 from the field for five points in the opening two periods, including a scoreless second quarter where he went 0 for 6 from the field and missed both of his free throws.

Brunson had 17 scoreless quarters in the regular season but none in the playoffs.

Up until Friday.

And as rings true with most elite teams, the Knicks went as far as their star player could carry them.

Miles McBride got his second consecutive playoff start in place of the injured OG Anunoby (hamstring) and after scoring 17 points in Game 5, the third-year guard finished with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting in Game 6, including 11 points in the first quarter alone.

Donte DiVincenzo scored 15 points in the first half but mustered just two in the second, and the Knicks entered the third quarter down 10 despite one of the worst shooting starts Brunson has seen during his Knicks career.

Brunson, however, was not the only lowlight of the Knicks’ series-extending loss to the Pacers on Friday.

Once again, the Pacers beat the Knicks at their own game.

For the third time in front of their home fans, the Pacers beat the Knicks on the glass, winning the rebound margin 47-35.

“Well they went hard. We knew they would coming off last game, so, and that’s what it’s about,” Thibodeau said.

The Pacers also scored 40 points in the paint in the first half alone, an unheard-of stat for a Knicks team dominating the paint for the majority of the season. Not to mention the Pacers logged 35 assists in Game 6 to just 20 for the Knicks.

Pacers All-Star Pascal Siakam scored 25 points, including 21 through the first three quarters, and center Myles Turner added 15 points with only one of his buckets coming from behind the arc.

And after posting 13 points and five assists in the blowout Game 5 loss at the Garden, All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton responded with 15 points and nine assists, including a pair of 3s to jolt the Pacers in the first quarter.

Six players on a deep Pacers roster scored in double figures on Friday, versus just five from the Knicks, who had just six players receiving regular rotation minutes available in Game 6.

And then there were five.

Hart left the game in the second half due to what the team called abdominal soreness after taking a hit in the first quarter. Thibodeau provided no update on Hart postgame.

That makes an entire NBA starting lineup — three-time All-Star Julius Randle (shoulder), starting center Mitchell Robinson (ankle), starting forward Anunoby (hamstring), sixth man Bojan Bogdanovic (ankle) and now Hart — who the Knicks did not have on the floor for Game 6.

These Knicks, however, are not a team ready to make excuses.

They have battled injuries and adversity, ups and downs, all year long. This is no different.

And with a chance to punch a ticket to their first conference finals appearance since 2000, the Knicks enter Game 7 with the same goal in mind for Game 6.

Win one more game, though this time, they’ll play at the Garden, where they have yet to lose this series and have only lost once, to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, in these playoffs.