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Knicks at Pacers: Players to watch when New York visits Indiana

Will the Knicks exploit a soft defense or get burned in a firefight?

Indiana Pacers v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite all the trade hullabloo, the Knicks still have a game to play tonight!

After a rough stretch, the Indiana Pacers (16-14) are on an upward trend, in part due to a lineup change by head coach Rick Carlisle. (Spoiler: Obi Toppin went to the bench.) Before their present two-game win streak, the Pacers had gone 1-6 in their last seven games. Now they seem poised to work their way back up the Eastern Conference standings.

The new starting five consists of Tyrese Haliburton, Andrew Nembhard, Aaron Nesmith, Jalen Smith, and Myles Turner. Here’s an overview of them ahead of tonight’s 7pm game versus the New York Knicks (17-14).

Tyrese Haliburton, PG

Tyrese Haliburton had a standout performance with 21 points, 20 assists, three rebounds, two steals, one block, and zero turnovers in the Pacers last game against Chicago Bulls, a 120-104 win.

Haliburton’s 20 assists ranks second in Pacers’ franchise history. (Jamaal Tinsley recorded 23 assists in 2001.) Led by Haliburton, these Pacers are first in the league for points, assists, field goals made, and field goal percentage, and third-best for three-point accuracy.

In the ten games since the In-Season Tournament, Tyrese Haliburton has averaged 20.2 points, 12.8 assists, and 3.3 rebounds, while shooting 46%/37%/71%. Over that span, his efficiency has decreased from how he started the season, when he scored 24.7 and shot 53%/44%/93% through his first ten games.

Even “slumping,” he’s damn good. Haliburton’s impact on the team can not be overstated, and he brings out the best in players like Myles Turner, Buddy Hield, and Bennedict Mathurin. The question tonight will be: who defends him? Donte DiVincenzo to start, and then Quentin Grimes for relief is the most likely scenario, but New York’s attempts to contain him are likely to be as successful as every other team’s. He’s too fast, too talented, too smart—the future of the NBA.

Andrew Nembhard, SG

Andrew Nembhard joined the starting lineup three games ago, against the Orlando Magic. That was his fifth start of the season. Most recently, he put up a middling performance against the Bulls, finishing with eight points, three rebounds, and four assists. He also rated a team-low -19 and struggled with shooting efficiency, going 4-of-13 from the floor and 0-of-4 from three-point range.

Truth be told, those aren’t surprising numbers from Nembhard, a sophomore who is averaging 7.7 points and four assists on 48% from the floor and 29% from three. The 6’5”, 193 lb combo guard’s shot quality rates in the 25th percentile, which is not great for a starting shooter, and he’s another soft defender. New York should look to exploit him early and often.

Aaron Nesmith, SF

Aaron Nesmith joined the starting lineup two games ago. The 6’5”, 215 lbs Aaron Nesmith has averaged 11.5 points and 3.3 rebounds this season, and takes his shots either beyond the arc or as layups at the rim. In the offseason, he clearly improved his basketball skills, and has played with better pace, ball handling, drives into the paint, and finishing this season.

This season, he’s been splitting his time between small and power forward. Like most of the Pacers, he’s no great defender, but he will poke the ball away from time to time. He has a defensive rating of 121 but does average a steal and 2.5 deflections per game.

Traded from the Boston Celtics in July 2022, Nesmith can be dangerous shooter. The Knicks, who are prone to lapses on the perimeter, can’t leave this marksman open for the corner three, which he converts 55% of the time. He’s capable of scoring 23 points in a game, as he did against the Knicks a year ago at Madison Square Garden.

Jalen Smith, PF

Jalen Smith has averaged 10.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 0.8 assists in 18 games this season. The 6’10” power forward is on the lighter side at 215 lb. With a 35-pound advantage, Julius Randle should be able to out-muscle the 23-year-old Smith, but beware Jalen’s 7’2.25” wingspan.

Drafted tenth by the Phoenix Suns in 2020, he underwhelmed to start his career, but has been improving since becoming a Hoosier (he was traded for Torrey Craig in February, 2022).

This season, Smith is shooting a career-high 71% from the field, taking about half of his shots within three feet of the rim and a third from long-range. He will attempt a little under two three-pointers per game and makes them more often than not. Smith is one of the top defenders on the team, with a 119 defensive rating, but despite those long arms, he is in the sixth percentile for deflections and averages only 1.2 stocks per game.

Myles Turner, C

It wasn’t long ago that some of the Knicks’ fanbase wanted to swap Mitchell Robinson for Myles Turner. Given Mitch’s injury history, they might want to, still.

Against the Bulls this week, Turner had a stellar game. He contributed 24 points, six rebounds, three blocks, and had a +30 rating. Overall this season, Turner has averaged 17.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 29 games this season. He is taking four three-pointers per game, making them at a 34% clip; is logging his third-best effective field goal percentage (58%); and is having his second-best year for rebounding.

He tends to be defensively-challenged against top-tier opponents but has the best defensive rating of Indiana’s starters and averages 2.8 stocks per outing. Isaiah Hartentein should match up well with him, but the 6’11”, 250 lb Turner seems a bit much for Julius Randle to push around in a small-ball lineup. Nonetheless, the Pacers are the 29th-ranked rebounding team, and the Knicks should win the glass tonight. (Unlike the horror show in Orlando last night.)

Oh, okay, fine . . . since you’re dying to know: Obi Toppin has averaged 11.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.3 assists in 30 games this season while shooting 38% from downtown, and reportedly plays defense just as well in Indiana as he did in Manhattan.

All in all, tonight’s game has the makings of a shootout in Indianapolis. Would have been a perfect opportunity for Quickley to serve up his first 30-burger of the season. [Wipes tear.]

Go Knicks.