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Jalen Brunson returns from foot injury, sparks Knicks past Pacers for 2-0 lead in East semifinals

NEW YORK: Jalen Brunson left the locker room on an injured leg, walked onto the court and sent the Madison Square Garden crowd into a frenzy, just as Willis Reed had exactly 54 years earlier.

As the roars turned into “MVP! MVP!” chants, Brunson tried to block out the pain in his body and the noise all around him as he warmed up at halftime.

“It was really cool to hear, but I just knew that I had to get my mind in the right place to figure out how I was going to attack the second half,” Brunson said.

He shook off his right foot injury to score 24 of his 29 points in the final two quarters, leading the New York Knicks to a 130-121 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night for a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

On the anniversary of Reed’s dramatic emergence from the locker room before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals to lead the Knicks to their first title, Brunson had missed the entire second quarter while the Pacers surged ahead to a double-figure lead.

Reed’s teammates have said they didn’t know if he would play that night. Brunson’s had no doubt.

“I mean, he’s a warrior. That’s all I got,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “There was no doubt in my mind that he’ll be back. All season long, no matter what is thrown at him, injury bug or whatever, he always bounces back. And we knew the severity of the game and everything, so we knew, everybody had confidence he was coming back.”

Brunson fell short of becoming the second player in NBA history to score 40 or more points in five straight playoff games, but he gave the Knicks everything they needed to move halfway to their first Eastern Conference finals appearance since 2000.

“He’s a great leader, so I think the players all have respect for that, when a guy goes out and is willing to give whatever he has, and so that says a lot about him,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said.

OG Anunoby added a career playoff-high 28 points before leaving with a left hamstring injury in the third quarter for the injury-riddled Knicks, who have already lost three key players to season-ending injuries.

But they got Brunson back and received huge efforts again from his two Villanova teammates. DiVincenzo scored 28 points and Josh Hart had 19 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists for the No. 2-seeded Knicks.

Tyrese Haliburton rebounded from a poor Game 1 with 34 points, nine assists and six rebounds for the Pacers, who finished the game without coach Rick Carlisle after he got two technical fouls and was ejected.

“Small-market teams deserve an equal shot,” Carlisle said during a postgame complaint about the officiating. “They deserve a fair shot no matter where they are playing.”

The series moves to Indiana for Game 3 on Friday and Game 4 on Sunday.

Former Knicks forward Obi Toppin added 20 points in another strong effort by Indiana’s reserves, but the Pacers hurt themselves by shooting just 10 for 17 (59 percent) from the free throw line.

Knicks fans profanely jeered Pacers Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, an enemy from the heated 1990s era of this playoff rivalry who was calling the game as part of TNT’s crew, during a delirious finish to what had been a nervous first half, when Brunson was missing for the entire second quarter.

He had made a 3-pointer for a 24-13 lead in the first quarter, giving the Knicks 10 baskets in their first 14 shots in a blistering start. But after Toppin made one for the Pacers on the other end, Brunson began waving to the bench for a substitution as he ran down the court on offense. That was early in an 11-0 run by Indiana to tie it, and it was tied again at 36 after Toppin made three free throws with 0.3 seconds remaining.

The Pacers then made 15 of 22 shots in the second quarter in Brunson’s absence, outscoring the Knicks 37-27 to take a 73-63 lead.

Brunson would only say he felt some discomfort and that once he warmed up, he knew he was going back into the game.

“I had a decision to make and I made a decision,” Brunson said.

Indiana’s lead was 79-70 before the Knicks stormed ahead with a 14-0 run, with Brunson contributing a three-point play during it as New York went ahead 84-79.

Anunoby was hurt soon after, appearing to injure his hamstring while trying to finish a fast-break layup, but Brunson guided the Knicks through the finish with 14 points in the fourth quarter.

With All-Star Julius Randle gone to shoulder surgery and key reserves Mitchell Robinson and Bojan Bogdanovic lost in the playoffs, the Knicks have been relying on their starters to play major minutes — all 48 of them for Hart in both games of the series.

So they can’t afford to play without Brunson, who finished fifth in the voting for MVP that Nikola Jokic won Wednesday.

He had joined Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Bernard King as the only players with at least four straight 40-point games in the playoffs, and came in as the leading scorer in the postseason with 36.6 points per game.

Brunson ended up getting fairly close to that despite playing only 32 minutes, saying afterward that teammates were teasing him with Reed jokes.

Isaiah Hartenstein finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists for the Knicks, forced to play 39 minutes after the Knicks announced Tuesday that Robinson would miss at least six weeks with a stress injury to his left ankle.

The Knicks paid tribute to Reed’s return, one of the most memorable moments in NBA and Madison Square Garden history, during the first quarter. His No. 19 jersey, hanging in the rafters, was spotlighted, and Hall of Fame teammate Walt Frazier came onto the court for an ovation.

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