Things were supposed to be different this time around in Indiana. Former head coach, Rick Carlisle was back at the helm and bringing the tools for offensive efficiency seen during his time in Dallas with him. Yet, here the Pacers stand at 2-4 and in desperate need of a spark.
If Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t careful, his Knicks might prove the perfect foil. For a variety of reasons the Knicks have not been able to plant their foot firmly on the neck of their opponent recently. They’ve squandered big leads, as they did Monday night against the Toronto Raptors, just to watch the Raptors erase a 15-point deficit and win.
WHEN THEY LAST MET
Last time these two teams met was preseason on Oct. 5 when the Knicks walloped the Pacers good and plenty 125-104. It feels like the Knicks and Pacers always meet in preseason and this match-up is a good measuring stick for the Knicks to compare themselves to. At least in terms of the starting five, which when healthy (it rarely is) they boast one of the most dynamic and well-spaced offenses in the league. In this game the hot rookie scored 15 points on 5-11 shooting while leading the Pacers with five assists. Julius Randle poured in 20 points on 50% shooting while Immanuel Quickley chipped in seven assists, well before his experiment at point guard went awry much to the chagrin of Knicks fans.
WHAT’S BEEN HAPPENING IN INDIANA?
Both teams have varying factors leading to wildly different records, but similar mental lapses keeping them from reaching full potential. Thibodeau and Carlisle are both top five coaches in the NBA, but both can be arrogant, control freaks in the way they shape expectations around winning. For Carlisle, his history of combative relationships with star guards goes all the way back to Jason Kidd during their championship run in Dallas. Carlise is an old-school play-caller form the sidelines, reluctant to let his guards dictate the action on the floor. This led to run-ins throughout the years with various rental Maverick point guards: Rajon Rondo, Monte Ellis, Dennis Smith Jr., and most namely, Luka Doncic. His rocky and controversial relationship with Doncic led to him quitting the Mavericks after 15 seasons and rejoining the Pacers, where he coached from 2003-2007.
The Pacers have one of the better starting fives in the league when healthy with Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, Chris Duarte, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner. The problem has been injuries have kept the team from establishing continuity within Carlisle’s new system. Only eight games into the season and Brogdon has missed three games and LaVert has missed six. Arguments amongst the Pacer fan base point to other reasons why the team has faced early struggles and a disappointing record. Some say the offense moves cleaner without Brogdon’s ball dominate and shoot first style. Other blame Sabonis, their star player for playing too much of the point forward role when he should be posting up smaller defenders in the paint.
What they share the most in common is an inability to stick to their game-plan to close out games. The Knicks have had the same issue, going away from the crisp passing of the first three and a half quarters just to stand around on the perimeter and watch Randle isolate himself on the elbow. The Pacers run much of the same action with Sabonis being given the ball in his favorite spots, just to stagnate the rest of the team into non-participants in the flow of the game.
One of the biggest critiques of Thibodeau this season is a continuation of a dangerous trend we saw last playoffs — his reluctance to sit Randle in crunch time and go with more experimental line-ups. Thibs is a meat and potatoes guy. We saw him finally operate this way against the Pelicans when he benched Randle in the second half of the fourth quarter and let young star RJ Barrett lead the team to victory. But Thibs can only change so much. Thibs becomes enamored with certain players. We see it with Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, and Nerlens Noel last year. The difference is he has had the gall to bench these guys when others are playing better in their steed. No matter how hot Obi has been, or what the defense is giving Barrett or Fournier at the four in small ball, Thibs is going to ride the Randle hand until the wheels fall off. It won’t be until the Knicks pull the trigger for a real number one option who has shown they aren’t afraid of the brightest moment, that the Knicks will survive on the backs of Randle as a second option.
The issues plaguing both teams should be worked out as the season progresses. Thibs’ pros vastly outweigh his cons, although they are deeply entrenched. For Indiana they have a Rookie of the Year candidate in Chris Duarte, out of Oregon, who is already used by Carlisle as a starter on the perimeter. Duarte had pre-draft fans in the Knicks front office. Scott Perry was rumored to be in talks to try and move up to the #13 pick to select him, but lacked the assets this draft to do so. It’s early in the seasons but Duarte is already averaging a whopping 18ppg and 5rpg on a blistering 43% form three. The kid can flat out shoot and he would have been a perfect fit in New York’s pacing and spacing offense behind Fournier.
The match-up to watch will be between two players who mirror each others game in Sabonis and Randle. Both are filling the role of number one option for their teams while better suited in a Pau Gasol secondary role to a true superstar. Sabonis lacks athleticism and the three-point range of his father but makes up for it with elite footwork and a deep arsenal of post moves on offense. He and Randle love the mid-range, using their bodies and lower body strength to bully opponents towards the paint in back downs and post-ups. Unlike last season, the battle will not be won in this match-up alone. It will be who finishes with more poise in the last five minuets. Or in the Knicks case, figuring out how not to relinquish a lead. Which they should have against a less talented team still trying to figure it out.
Ironically enough, it will be up to the Knicks to steer away from a grind out game with the Pacers. It’s to the Knicks advantage, finally, to play the modern NBA game and fire on all cylinders from three. The Pacers thrive in the half-court game. For the first time in 188 days and 21 games the Indiana Pacers will have their starting backcourt of Caris LeVert and Malcolm Brogdon together. It will be to Walker’s advantage to get cooking early before Brogdon gets his feet under him. If two out of the four group consisting of Fournier, Barrett, Randle, and Walker score above 20, Knicks should, key word, should win this one by a double digit margin.