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Pacers 121, Knicks 107: “RJ is the franchise”

One half of amazing basketball

NBA: New York Knicks at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The first one’s in the books.

The Knicks finally started the 2020-21 regular season tonight, about nine-and-a-half months after their last regular season game. Unfortunately, things didn’t get to be quite as rosy in this game as they were in the preseason.

That’s because the Knicks ran into an actual team to start the season, not the weird G League roster monstrosity that Cleveland threw out in the two feel-good Knicks games to end the preseason.

Still, though, the Knicks held up pretty well throughout the first half, which was made even more impressive by the fact that Mitchell Robinson (two) and Nerlens Noel (three) combined for five fouls in the first quarter thanks to, in part, Domantas Sabonis’ crafty nature, and yet also largely due to Domantas Sabonis getting a Michael Jordan whistle inside. In fact, the Knicks wound up entering the first half up 66-61, which had a lot to do with RJ Barrett dropping 20 points on perfect shooting.

I’ll just get the quote of the game out of the way early — “RJ is the franchise,” said marcus7. Yeah, as of right now, he definitely is. Mitch is great, but RJ is really looking like he could be a 20/5/5 guy (or better!) on a nightly basis sooner than later.

The Knicks did manage to get Mitch back in for some pretty quality minutes in the second quarter without more fouls (he actually only ended up with three total in 21 minutes, all told), but the frontline of Julius Randle and Obi Toppin help up surprisingly well on the defensive end.

And as far as offense, Randle had himself a game: 17 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists, and none of it felt cheap. Other than some gross two-man offense between Randle and Payton at the outset of the game, Randle was mostly the player that Knicks fans talked themselves into in free agency last year — a good passing big who’s capable of making solid reads and quick decisions.

Unfortunately, after that inspired first half, the Knicks came out flat in the second half. It seems kinda absurd to say this about a rookie “point” guard who put up five points and an assist in 12 minutes, but things kinda fell apart in the second half thanks to Immanuel Quickley leaving the game with a hip pointer in the second quarter and not returning.

That’s because Elfrid Payton totally sucked, but the alternative to him was... running Alec Burks at the point, I guess? Thibs didn’t really empower RJ to play point (maybe one of the only fun and interesting decisions that Fizdale made last year), so the weird point guard-less backcourt of RJ, Burks, and Reggie Bullock had to run things for a while, and it wasn’t too pretty. Hopefully Quickley’s not out for long.

Anyway, you get the idea. The Knicks blew it down the stretch in a big way, getting outscored 60-41 in the second half (and it could’ve been worse than that). And so begins the march for Cade Cunningham, but at least the Knicks are going to be a fun bad team rather than just a bad bad team.


— So yeah, RJ Barrett might have a star turn in him. After giving us all some worries about his shooting in the preseason, RJ came out in a rhythm tonight and banged home his first two attempts from deep. He wound up going 3-3 from there for the game, and even though he slowed down some in the second half, he put the basketball world on notice tonight with 25 points, eight rebounds, and five assists. Literally could not have drawn up a game that made RJ’s future look brighter on day one than this one. Even aside of the outside shot, he was bringing out some next level footwork too.

— I enjoyed Kevin Knox’s outing, even if he wasn’t the absolute beast that he showed in the last five quarters of preseason. Knox wound up with a well-rounded four points, three rebounds, two steals, and a block on 2-5 shooting in 18 minutes. His one look from three was a good one, it just didn’t go in. And he could’ve realistically gone 2-4 from the field with two free throws, because he went up for a dunk attempt at one point and almost definitely got fouled by Sabonis (go figure, the whistle helped him both ways). But the defense was pretty dope, even if some of it came in garbage time. If he can stay engaged when he’s out there, he could definitely become a solid NBA role player (or more if he hits a true 100% outcome, but I’m not willing to really entertain that just yet).

— Alec Burks can just straight up score the basketball. I honestly am not quite sure why he didn’t draw the start instead of Bullock, but it didn’t matter much. Burks played 32 minutes and ended up with 22 points on 6-12 shooting, 2-4 from three, and 8-9 from the line. He created some of his own shots, he took some shots off of feeds from others, and in other instances he made some nice little cuts. It was a great display of the best of his abilities. Heavy, HEAVY Marcus Morris energy flowing from Burks. Don’t get too attached, he’s probably going to get traded at the deadline for a third straight year.

— Obi Toppin’s usage was kinda worrisome to me. This guy was billed as an elite rim-running dunker who had a bit of an outside shot, and instead the Knicks... had him just shoot a whole shit ton of threes? It just didn’t quite seem right to me. Maybe they were trying to spare him the agony of banging with Sabonis and Myles Turner down low after he got bodied so much by the similarly big Pistons in the preseason (the Central Divison is big, man), but if this becomes a trend going forward, it’s not gonna be a great look. Obi managed to get 3-7 threes to go down (but only 3-12 overall, which was icky), but there wasn’t a lot of consistency to his shot. The good was a legit movement three, which is an extremely valuable NBA skill:

The bad was a wayward chuck that just happened to bank in:

So hopefully once the Knicks stop playing teams from 1992 one of these days, Obi can get some actual cuts to the rim and a chance to show off those dunking chops.

— Already mentioned above, but Julius Randle was legit good in this game, and just like the Knicks suffered not having Quickley available in the second half, they struggled a good deal too when Randle had to take a seat in the third quarter.

— Reggie Bullock played somewhere between the garbage fire of a player he was early in preseason and the flamethrower he was to end the preseason. I will say, he flashed a lot of chemistry with Randle passing him the ball, both for spot-up threes and cuts to the hoop. Maybe those two can get moved together in a package at the deadline!

— The Mitch and Noel experiment was kind of a disaster in the first game, but Mitch actually managed to put up a decent showing after the initial foul woes — the stats just don’t really paint that picture. Ultimately Mitch had three points, six rebounds, and three blocks, but more importantly, just three fouls after getting two quick ones (the second of which was very suspect). Mitch is gonna be all good.

— Thibs went with that aforementioned Burks/RJ/Bullock arrangement rather than playing a fully healthy Frank Ntilikina or Dennis Smith Jr. at first, but eventually put Frank in to start the fourth. As much as I wanted Frank to wow me, he put in an extremely “meh” performance. And that’s often been the problem with Frank... we see the flashes and know that he can do more, but sometimes he just comes out and doesn’t do it. He wasn’t bad, don’t get me wrong... but if Thibs doesn’t play him next game, or only plays him a handful of minutes again, I wouldn’t be surprised.

— Clyde was in midseason form in the drip department:

And that’s all I got for today. We’re back on Saturday for a post-Christmas home back-to-back. Here’s hoping the league doesn’t shut down by then! Thankfully James Harden only plays for one team, so we should be OK for at least a couple weeks.