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SPORTS

Knicks Advance to the Eastern Conference Semis, Topping 76ers 118-115 in Game 6

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — With a frenzied Philly crowd clamoring for defense, Josh Hart hesitated for just a second after Jalen Brunson passed him the ball from the left wing before Hart realized the 76ers weren’t playing any D on him.

Left alone at the top of the arc, Hart let it fly.

“I was able to get my feet set and just shoot an open uncontested shot,” he said.

Hart raised his arms and extended three fingers on each hand on his go-ahead 3-pointer with 24.4 seconds left that was finally enough to help send the New York Knicks past the Philadelphia 76ers 118-115 in Game 6 on Thursday night and into the second round of the playoffs.

Brunson had 41 points and 12 assists to lead the Knicks, who are set for an Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with Indiana. The Pacers beat Milwaukee in six games and advanced to the second round for the first time in 10 years.

Game 1 is Monday night in New York.

New York Knicks’ Jalen Brunson reacts during the second half of Game 6 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Knicks are through to the second round in consecutive years for the first time since the postseasons from 1992-2000, and even then, nobody did what Brunson did in this series by scoring 40 points or more in each of the final three games. He became the first Knick to do that since Bernard King 40 years ago, and the first NBA player to score 40 or more to close out a series since Michael Jordan for Chicago against Cleveland in 1989.

In a series defined by tight games, Hart hit the clutch shot that made it 114-111 and again had “Let’s go Knicks! Let’s go Knicks!” chants echoing throughout Philly’s home court. Joel Embiid scored a bucket but fouled out on the next possession. Donte DiVincenzo sealed New York’s win with two free throws.

“The fourth quarter was just one big play after the next,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said.

Naturally, the former Villanova Wildcats trio of Hart, DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson saved the Knicks from a first-half collapse that was nearly enough to force a Game 7. DiVincenzo scored 23 points in 48 minutes and Hart had 16.

Hart atoned for a missed free throw late in Game 5 that would have put the Knicks up by four. Nursing a three-point lead, Tyrese Maxey pulled up from 35 feet to tie it at 97 with 8.1 seconds left and the Sixers went on to win the game.

“I felt that loss is on my shoulders,” Hart said. “I had a day-and-a-half to think about that. That’s really all I thought about.”

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, center, goes up to shoot against New York Knicks’ Josh Hart (3) and Isaiah Hartenstein (55) during the second half of Game 6 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The 76ers — who trailed by 22 in the first half before taking a 54-51 lead at the break — have another long off summer to think about one more wasted season of Embiid’s prime.

Embiid finished with 39 points and 13 rebounds. Buddy Hield had 20 points. After dropping 45 points in Game 5, Maxey was a non-factor in the first half and finished with 17.

“This series probably could have went the exact opposite the way it did,” 76ers coach Nick Nurse said. “But it didn’t.”

Despite Philadelphia’s best efforts to keep rowdy Knicks fans at home, Wells Fargo Center sounded more like Madison Square Garden in the waning moments. Knicks fans crowded near New York’s tunnel after the game and held their phones high to capture video of their favorite team headed to the locker room.

“Was it hostile?” Thibodeau cracked, when asked about the atmosphere.

This was a game were it seemed natural to want to skip ahead to the final minute. After all, there have been five playoff games since the 1996-97 season where a team trailed by five or more in the final 30 seconds of regulation and came back to win — and two were in this series.

Game 2, the Knicks rallied to win 104-101.

Game 5, the 76ers came back for a 112-106 overtime win.

Exhilarating, exhausting, there was more can-you-top-this ahead.

With Sixers fans having seized back the building, they were roaring at the late tip — shortly after 9 p.m. — only for the Knicks to come roaring out to a 33-11 lead. Just last season, the 76ers held a 3-2 series lead against Boston in the East semifinals, only to drop Game 6 at home, and then Game 7 in Boston. The Sixers lost Game 6 and the East semis in 2022 at home to Miami.

Only in this Game 6, the Sixers showed some moxie.

With Maxey unable to find a shot, Hield about saved the season. Acquired at the trade deadline, Hield lost his starting job after a late-season slump. He missed all four 3-point attempts in the first three games of the series and did not play in the last two. Hield found his shot in Game 6, hitting five 3s in the second quarter that sparked the Sixers on a 34-11 run.

His fifth 3 helped send the Sixers into the half with a 54-51 lead.

Maxey hit a 3 for a 10-point lead in the third before a pair of wild misses from beyond the arc sparked a Knicks rally. OG Anunoby closed the third quarter with a tying 3 for New York and he opened the fourth with one for an 86-83 lead. With the game tied 95-all, Brunson hit a step-back 3 and then another 3 that made it 101-95.

Anunoby’s dunk for an eight-point Knicks lead with 2:43 left looked like it might be decisive. But the Sixers had one more run in them. Like so many empty postseasons before them, it wasn’t enough.

___
By DAN GELSTON AP Sports Writer

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