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Pacers 106, Knicks 98: “Only reason I’m still watching this is Mitch and the occasional RJ drive”

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Everything you expected to happen happened

NBA: Indiana Pacers at New York Knicks Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Usually I know what approach a recap will take during the game. If not, a few minutes of decompression afterward brings it into focus. I finished last night’s 106-98 loss to the Indiana Pacers 90 minutes ago and even though I spent all 90 thinking about what I just saw, I could not for the life of me think of what to say about it. Then it hit me — I couldn’t think of an angle because this was the quintessential 2020 Knicks loss. The kind artificial intelligence would create, the Knicks via the Matrix. Guards bricking. Getting beaten at the line. Costly fouls. Costly turnovers. A fake comeback. This was the Knicks as written by O. Henry: what must be will be.

Some early misdirection suggested the night may have surprises in store. Frank Ntilikina started for Elfrid Payton, out with a sore right ankle. Julius Randle sought to orchestrate rather than devastate, even setting up Ntilikina for a sweet wrong-footed runner off glass. It seemed beauty was everywhere and spring need never end.

Neither team hit a field goal outside the paint till 1:30 left in the first. GIven that Indiana came in ninth in the league in three-point accuracy and the Knicks were last, an old-timey slugtfest down low was a win for New York. Eventually the teams expanded the battle from the infantry to the skies; a few minutes after a Kevin Knox rainbow pull-up three put the Knicks up six, the refs changed it to two after seeing his foot on the line during a timeout. Replay blows. Not just when it costs the Knicks a point. I just hate the nanny state of it all. But also it felt like a point they didn’t need to lose if they were gonna defy the odds and win.

After a first quarter featuring just 35 total points, the two teams combined to hit over 70% from the floor the first half of the second. The Pacers kept it coming; commendable hustle and smarts by Malcolm Brogdon after an unclaimed rebound led to a free lay-up for T.J. Warren and a lead for Indiana. They entered the night having lost six of their last seven but scored 36 in the second quarter. The Knicks had the early lead but lost it quickly enough for the Pacers to gain confidence. That confidence manifested as a 16-4 run to open third quarter. By the middle of the frame RJ Barrett was the only Knick in double figures and Indiana was up as many as 22.

Bobby Portis started drilling three-pointers and pulling the Knicks back within single digits. They could get no closer than nine for a spell, and when a Knox drive was rejected the Doug McDermott hit a four-point play for the Pacers the deficit was back to 13. Still, a fake comeback is only as good as its comeback, and the Knicks were intent on making one, responding to the four-point play with Ntilikina’s second three of the fourth and Barrett’s second scoring drive of the quarter, keying a 7-0 run to pull within six.

But then Warren scored while guarded by Knox, and Ntilikina shot a brick, and then Warren scored again while guarded by Knox. Portis hit yet another three-ball to pull the Knicks within eight. Warren actually missed his next shot (he was not guarded by Knox), but Domantas Sabonis fought for the rebound and drew a loose-ball foul (on Knox).

Barrett drew a foul from Sabonis and hit one free throw to cut the gap to six, the smallest it’d been since the first half. Portis defended Sabonis well on the other end, but the Knicks couldn’t capitalize. Damyean Dotson missed a couple of long twos. Brogdon thought he could ice things by getting Randle out on a switch, but all the iso led to was a miss from deep. If you take all the times this season a guard has tried to take advantage of Randle in late-and-clutch spots, I reckon Julius has come out on top more often than not.

After Brogdon missed, entering the last minute of the game, down six, RJ dribbled up the floor and just lost control of his dribble, turning it over. There was no ball pressure or trapping D or even tight D. There was no D at all. Poor kid just made an unforced error. Understandable. Less so? The Knicks defending for 18 seconds, the Pacers having the ball near midcourt with most of the shot clock expired and no obvious play or structure happening, then Ntilikina deciding with six left on the shot clock to give the foul and send Indiana to the line — specifically Brogdon, the career 90% shooter from the stripe.

The Knicks held the Pacers without a field goal the last five minutes, and a Dotson three with 23 seconds left pulled them within four. But every time the Knicks had to foul someone, they’d foul Brogdon, and that’s bad for business. Randle got to the line late and missed both free throws. The Pacers had eight more free throw attempts and nine more makes than the Knicks. New York’s guards shot a combined 18 of 48 (38%). Mitchell Robinson couldn’t stay out of foul trouble. Barrett’s unforced turnover was a backbreaker. 19- and 20-year-olds making mistakes is what 19- and 20-year-olds do. If there’s a positive there, it’s that a lot of the lumps taken in this one were taken by youngsters you hope don’t lose the lesson.

Notes:

  • A very quiet night for Randle as far as shooting: seven points on nine shots. It was only the second time this year he played 30+ minutes and took fewer than 10 shots, the other coming in November in Boston.
  • Dennis Smith Jr. was driving and dishing in his first-half minutes. Not so much later. He finished with six assists. His shot needs some summer school.
  • Portis scored 11 in the fourth en route to 19 on the night. He’s aesthetically interesting. I can’t think of many Knicks as big as him and as effective from deep with a shooting form that has as much motion as his does winding up.
  • What are you doing? Right now? Stop whatever it is and raise your arms up. I bet Mitchell Robinson just fouled you.
  • Jeremy Lamb looks like what happens when you mix Ambien and electricity. Gotta be the most laconic player since Sam Perkins, right?
  • Kenny Albert mentioned that Pacer assistant coach and former NBAer Popeye Jones has two sons in the NHL: Seth, a four-time All-Star (Columbus), and Caleb (Edmonton).
  • Regarding Sabonis, Wally Szczerbiak commented: “A lot of grit, a lot of grind and a lot of hard work.” Are any black players in the league who’d earn those adjectives? Does Sabonis work harder than Damian Lillard? Jimmy Butler? Ben Simmons? James Harden? Carmelo Anthony? Not looking for a specific example as much as I am thinking this feels like it’s been going on since I was a kid. Sabonis seems like a good worker. Certainly doesn’t give off a lazy vibe. He is the son of an all-time great player. Why does it seem like even the son of a Hall-of-Famer is talked about as if he’s succeeded in spite of his genetics?

Quoth Melo’s Bucket Hat Collection: “Only reason I’m still watching this is Mitch and the occasional RJ drive.” The Knicks’ next game is Monday at Houston, the first in a three-game road trip. Seeing Harden and the Rockets gentrifying big men and the midrange might be more reason to watch.