It felt like a loss.
The Knicks didn’t seem like they had come to play from the opening tip, forcing a timeout from an irate Tom Thibodeau after quickly going down 8-0.
Taj Gibson, one of two healthy centers on the team, got hurt after 4 minutes, and it didn’t look like the 16-17 Knicks would be improving to .500 after 34 games for the first time since 2017.
The Pacers stretched their lead to 16 in the second quarter, and the Knicks looked dead in the water.
What followed was one of the most inspiring stretches of play this season. In a 24-6 stretch, the Knicks repeatedly got out in transition as Quickley effortlessly drained one of his three threes on the night, Randle had two powerful dunks, RJ dropped two of his four threes of the game, and Derrick Rose capped it off with a first-half buzzer-beater three a la Carmelo against the Bobcats.
STEAL AND THE SLAM— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) February 28, 2021
THAT'S OUR ALL STAR pic.twitter.com/9s3N4J1jXv
JULIUS COAST TO COAST WITH AUTHORITY pic.twitter.com/EUWaL2HlXS— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) February 28, 2021
Snagged the lead right before half on this DRose buzzer beater pic.twitter.com/yaRC9bdP7D— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) February 28, 2021
Things felt less certain in the second half.
Despite pitching in immediately with a four-point play at the start of the fourth quarter, Immanuel Quickley was pulled shortly after despite only playing 13 minutes.
IQ 4-point play pic.twitter.com/MGai4XrMUW— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 28, 2021
The Knicks sported a lackluster Rose-Burks-Bullock-Randle-Noel lineup as their lead dwindled and the game looked on track to be a disappointing loss, with only veterans getting valuable crunch-time experience.
With 6:37 remaining in the fourth, Myles Turner made a three to put the Pacers up 94-91.
Fortunately, the youth movement was back at the 4:38 mark, as RJ Barrett checked in. While Barrett can generally be inconsistent, he has reliably played like an all-NBA candidate against the Pacers, averaging 25 points per game against them on the season. The fourth-quarter stretch of his all-around impressive game tonight was no exception.
In four straight possessions, the 20-year old looked like a veteran as he hit a three, drove for an and-1 layup, assisted Randle on a three, and drove for another layup.
RJ putting Indiana in the torture chamber two straight plays... the second one might weirdly be one of my favorite drives of his career? pic.twitter.com/lgcPe8P3NX— The Halfcourt Press (@THalfCourtPress) February 28, 2021
Barrett, who finished with 24 points on 8-17 shooting from the field and 4-6 from behind the arc, had helped the Knicks build a 104-98 lead with 2 minutes remaining.
The momentum was short-lived, as TJ McConnell quickly beat Derrick Rose down the court for a layup and hit Edmond Sumner for a transition three on the following two possessions.
The Knicks then buckled down on defense, making two clutch stops and forcing the Pacers to play the foul game. Julius Randle was then showered with MVP chants while putting the Knicks up 108-103 with 29.7 seconds left.
In what is becoming a trend with Randle, he turned what was looking to be bad performance into a tremendous one, with a staggering 28 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals.
The game seemed back in the Knicks’ hands, but things are never so simple with this franchise.
Sabonis banked in a three to bring them within two with 25 seconds left and RJ’s Indiana magic worn off at the worst possible moment as he missed two key missed free throws that would have iced the game.
The positive vibes were restored when Frank Ntiliikina checked in for defensive purposes on Indiana’s game-tying attempt with 15 seconds remaining.
Despite finishing with just 5 points in 10 minutes, Ntilikina made one of the most important plays of the game, coming up with a steal and draining two free throws with 2.9 seconds remaining to put the game out of reach.
Frank gets the clutch steal to beat the Pacers pic.twitter.com/Hy4wHfYsKk— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) February 28, 2021
As P&T’er Walt Clyde Phraser noted, the game was sealed with a French kiss.
It was an all-around terrific game, despite the poor start. Julius Randle outplayed fellow All-Star Domantas Sabonis, Nerlens Noel played stifling defense in his 41 minutes of play, and Derrick Rose provided a steady offensive presence with 17 points and 11 assists.
Most exciting, the Knicks have an ever-elusive .500 record after 34 games and are tied for fourth in the very strange Eastern Conference.
The biggest concern with the game tonight is that the Knicks play again tomorrow night in Detroit.
With Rose, Randle, Noel, and Rose all playing 38+ minutes tonight, it will be key to manage their playing time tomorrow night as to not overextend them, especially Rose. Rose had not played that many minutes since the 2019 season, and in the six games he played 38-plus minutes, he usually had to sit out with injury just a game or two later on each occasion.
But with Quickley, Ntilikina, Obi Toppin, and Kevin Knox combining for just 31 minutes tonight, it should not be too difficult to find some energetic fresh legs, especially with the impressive recent play of the first three.