Chaos at the Garden: Knicks top 76ers in exact environment they want most

NEW YORK — As an adventurous evening neared its end, basketball turned simple.

No longer did Isaiah Hartenstein need to scrutinize pick-and-roll coverages or how to slow down Joel Embiid, the reigning MVP. The mission at hand was far less nuanced, and Hartenstein had just one thought about it.

A friendly bounce on a Jalen Brunson 3-pointer had cut the Philadelphia 76ers’ lead to 2 with 27 seconds remaining in regulation. Brunson’s jumper could have skipped off the front of the rim. Instead, the basketball gods nudged it in the other direction, a shot that broke the laws of physics as it twisted through the hoop.

The rest was chaos. That’s just what the New York Knicks want.

Tyrese Maxey received an inbounds pass, but defenders pressured him and he toppled to the floor only a few feet from where Brunson had collapsed seconds earlier. Brunson recovered his own loose ball, which led to the miraculous 3-pointer. Maxey did not have the same fortune.

Josh Hart ripped it out of Maxey’s hands. Sixers coach Nick Nurse said he tried to call a timeout on the play, though it’s not clear if he motioned for the stoppage too late. Either way, he did not receive it. Hart then found an open Donte DiVincenzo, who released a 3 from the left wing.

That’s when Hartenstein became singularly focused. His one thought?

“Go get the ball,” he said.

You could see him execute it. As DiVincenzo’s jumper traveled through the air, Hartenstein trekked toward the rim. No 76ers boxed him out. When the Knicks center leaped for the basketball, no one was around to take it from him.

“It was just kind of like instinct,” Hartenstein said. “I feel like sometimes when you just — it’s weird — stop thinking and just let your game play, then you get stuff like that.”

“Weird” would be one way to describe what occurred next: a 14-second stretch that transformed the Madison Square Garden crowd into a beast that even fans from the Colosseum 2,000 years ago would have considered rowdy.

A Hartenstein board. Then, as he fell, a bounce pass to OG Anunoby. Then, another pass to DiVincenzo, who was open once again from the top of the key.

This time, DiVincenzo did not miss.

A team that was down 5 a quarter of a minute earlier now led by 1. And it didn’t let go of the advantage during the final 13 seconds — not when Maxey drove to the rim on the next possession, only for Hartenstein to swat his layup off the backboard, and not when Embiid released a 3 that would have tied the score as the final buzzer sounded.

“There’s been some pretty wild finishes, but that was right up there with the best of them,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “That just shows you what the playoffs are all about.”

The Knicks, who closed out a 104-101 victory Monday, now lead the 76ers 2-0 in their first-round playoff series. Game 3 is scheduled for Thursday in Philadelphia, where every possession for the Sixers could feel as desperate as the final few in Game 2 did for New York.

Without a frantic 27 seconds Monday, the tone of this series would not be the same.

If that Brunson 3 doesn’t redirect itself through the net on a night when Brunson, who finished Game 2 with 24 points on 8-of-29 shooting, couldn’t persuade many of his other jumpers to fall, the Knicks lose. The same holds if Maxey doesn’t fall, if Hart doesn’t pry the ball out of his palms, if Nurse receives his timeout, if Hartenstein fails to capture the offensive board, if he travels when he falls instead of finding Anunoby, if Anunoby doesn’t swing it to DiVincenzo, if DiVincenzo’s 3 doesn’t swish through, if Hartenstein’s block on Maxey doesn’t follow.

This was pandemonium.

Of course, that didn’t affect DiVincenzo. As Hartenstein turned off his mind, the Knicks sharpshooter understood another chance was coming his way.

“It was loud as hell in there,” DiVincenzo said. “Honestly, after I missed the first one, I was really, really, really hoping that Isaiah got it because I knew (with) the rotation of everything, I was going to get a second look. Thank God he got the offensive rebound.”

Maybe attributing the result to a higher being is the only way to explain what went down at the Garden on Monday. Or maybe the Knicks were built for that exact play.

They were built for Brunson to hit big-time shots, even on nights when it doesn’t seem like he’s making any others.

They were built for Hart to tear away steals that shouldn’t be his. After all, Team USA coach Steve Kerr once relayed something his assistant, Erik Spoelstra, said about Hart when Hart was playing for them in the FIBA World Cup: Some players get 50-50 balls, but Hart gets 30-70 ones.

They were built for DiVincenzo to drain 3s aplenty. He just broke the franchise record for most makes in a single season. They were built for him to hesitate naught if a pass swung back to him after a miss.

They were built for Hartenstein to snag those boards, too. The Knicks finished the regular season first in offensive-rebound rate. They were built to create 3-pointers when they recover their misses, too.

Thibodeau has hammered the progression his centers are supposed to go through after they grab an offensive board into each one of their brains. Behind the scenes, the Knicks practice these scramble situations constantly. They might appear in disarray, but there is a script.

If the rebounder is in the restricted area, he can go back up. If he isn’t, then he should look to pass back out. The defense will be in a tussle. As DiVincenzo alluded to, the situation is ripe for an open 3.

First, Hartenstein or whichever big man seizes the board should look to the corner, where a teammate is supposed to streak. If no one is there, then he can turn to the wing, where someone should be unguarded.

As Hartenstein dropped to the court, he peered to Anunoby, his first read, stationed in the corner just where Thibodeau would want. It won the Knicks the game when Anunoby flipped the ball to DiVincenzo for the 3.

Thibodeau speaks so often about the importance of preparation, about how building habits in the regular season helps during high-pressure playoff situations. He doesn’t believe in changing day-to-day customs come spring basketball. According to his philosophy, coaches and players should approach any game as if it’s a playoff game.

This is why.

When Hartenstein’s mission overcomes him, when all he can think is to go get the ball, muscle memory takes over.

The Knicks prevailed amid chaos. But the Knicks were built for chaos.

(Photo of Isaiah Hartenstein: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

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