Knicks Figuratively and Literally Limp Home for Game 5 vs. Pacers

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

No NBA team this season has faced more adversity nor dealt with it better than the New York Knicks but even they finally met their match after losing a 2-0 Eastern Conference semifinal lead over the Indiana Pacers after a narrow 111-106 defeat in Indianapolis in Game 3 on Friday followed by a humiliating 121-89 Mother’s Day loss in the same building on Sunday.

The severely shorthanded Knicks have withstood a lot, managing to capture the No. 2 seed in the East without All-Star forward Julius Randle since Jan. 27 and key center Mitchell Robinson for 51 regular season games.

Most recently, second-seeded New York subdued the seventh-seeded Philadelphia 76ers without reserve forward Bogdan Bogdanovic and without Robinson for one game in that series. Robinson then joined Randle and Bogdanovic with being out for the remainder of the season after the Knicks’ Game 1 win over the Pacers in the East semifinals.

But losing starting forward O.G. Anunoby, who began playing with New York at the beginning of the calendar year (following a blockbuster trade with Toronto) has thus far proven to be one roster loss too many for the Knicks’ otherwise resilient group.

Since Anunoby joined New York, the Knicks are 26-5 with him and just 13-16 without him, including the playoffs. In the postseason, New York is 6-2 with Anunoby and 0-2 without him, including their two most recent losses, in Games 3 and 4 over the past few days.

Three key things have changed since then:

The Knicks Are Suddenly No Longer Overcoming Slow Postseason Starts

New York has continually had poor starts, normally predicated on scoring issues, this postseason. In the Knicks’ 10 playoff games this year, they have trailed by at least seven points after the first quarter six times. In each of the last five of those occurrences, New York scored 20 points or fewer, being held to between 14 and 18 points four times in those games.

The difference is that the Knicks were largely getting away with that against Philadelphia but have not been able to do the same in their series with Indiana. Against the 76ers, the Knicks ended the first quarter trailing, 35-25, 25-18, and 27-17 in Games 1, 2, and 4, respectively, yet New York rallied to win each of those contests enroute to taking the series in six games. And although the Knicks also trailed, 26-17, after the opening period in Game 5 of that series, it took a miracle personal 7-1 run over the final 25.1 seconds of regulation from Philadelphia guard Tyrese Maxey to likewise keep New York from rallying for a win in that game.

Where that trend changed was in Indiana. Although the Knicks ultimately recovered after trailing Game 3 there, 29-20, after the first period — to lead by nine in the fourth quarter — they ultimately came up short in the end.

And New York’s worst first period this postseason was one the Knicks never bounced back from. Unlike the 14-4 deficit New York quickly erased in Game 3 against the Pacers, an identical 14-4 hole in Game 4 turned into a 34-14 Indiana lead by the time the quarter ended. That margin became 28 by halftime and as much as 43 in the final period.

New York No Longer Keeps Pace in the Paint

The Knicks have also had trouble keeping the Pacers out of the paint and off the scoreboard from there but New York at least held its own in that category to start the series with Indiana on its home floor. The Knicks even outscored the Pacers, 62-60, in the lane in Game 1. Indiana had the edge in the paint in Game 2, but only by a slim 64-58 edge.

While the Pacers continued to score inside at roughly the same clip at home, the Knicks consistently dropped off, being unable to score as much in the lane in Indiana as they had in New York to start the series. In Game 3, it was 56-40, Pacers, in the paint, and in Game 4, Indiana hit its first nine shots inside while holding a 60-40 advantage from that spot.

Nesmith Has Slowed Brunson Down

Perhaps the biggest determinant in the Pacers turning the series around has been Indiana head coach Rick Carlisle finally going away from smaller guards like 6-foot-4, 191-pound Andrew Nembhard and 6-foot-1, 190-pound T.J. McConnell, and instead entrusting the more physical 6-foot-6, 215-pound small forward Aaron Nesmith with the primary responsibility of containing Knicks star point guard Jalen Brunson, who hurt Indiana with 43 points (on 14-of-26 shooting) and 29 points (on 11-of-18 shooting) over the first two games of the series, respectively.

It’s curious as to why Carlisle waited so long to make that move, especially with the prevailing thought entering the series being that Nesmith’s size and physicality could affect Brunson, but since Carlisle eventually went that way, it had paid off for the Pacers as Brunson’s efficiency has significantly decreased.

Part of the reason for that is Brunson being physically limited on his own with a sore right foot that is not quite in peak condition. However, Brunson dealt with the same issue and still performed great during the second half of the Knicks’ Game 2 victory.

To a much larger degree, it’s been Nesmith doing what many expected he’d be able to do on Brunson, who had to work hard for his 26 Game 3 points on 10-of-26 shooting, and who was held to 18 points on 6-for-17 shooting in Game 4. Of that 16-for-43 total over the last two games, Brunson was only 9-for-27 with Nesmith guarding him and a significantly better 7-for-16 against other defenders in those two contests.

Looking Ahead

So, where does all of this leave the Knicks as they prepare for a pivotal Game 5 back at home on Tuesday night?

Well, for one thing, not too much should be read into New York losing Game 4 so badly compared to how competitive the Knicks were in their Game 3 loss.

There are many past examples of outlier blowouts in otherwise tight NBA playoff series, even won by the team that lost badly earlier in the series. New York being embarrassed on Sunday wasn’t even the only Mother’s Day Massacre nor the only loss of its kind on a major holiday.

A prior Mother’s Day thrashing occurred long before that in 1982, when Philadelphia lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals at Boston by 40 points only to later win that series on Boston’s home floor in Game 7.

Boston also lost the 1985 NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers at home in Game 7 despite throttling the Lakers by 34 in Game 1 of that series.

In the 2013 NBA Finals, Miami lost Game 3 at San Antonio by 36 points before winning that series in seven games and in 2022, Golden State beat Memphis in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals by 30 points before losing Game 5 at Memphis by 39, and then wrapping up a series win the following game.

Those are only a few of several such occurrences of teams getting up of the mat to win a playoff series after being dominated in a single game.

Considering how the first three very competitive games of the series went, it would seem that Indiana’s Game 4 win could similarly be an aberration that not only didn’t fit with the three prior highly competitive games, but which may not necessarily be a bellwether of what’s to come in the remaining two or three games of the series.

However, it does figure that the Knicks may need to come out strong at the start of Game 5. The opening quarters don’t often mean much in NBA games, not even in the postseason, but given New York’s aforementioned propensity to start poorly so frequently this postseason and the high confidence Indiana will likely bring to Madison Square Garden coming off of such an easy Game 4 win, things could possibly snowball in the wrong direction for the Knicks if they let it. Thus, the opening 12 minutes on Tuesday night could be a first quarter that is even more important than usual.

Losing the way the Knicks did, and with Brunson’s foot still ailing him, along with his some of his teammates battling through high usage on a depleted roster, New York is both figuratively and literally limping back to the Garden but still with strong belief.

New York’s biggest hustler and energy guy, forward Josh Hart, said after the Game 4 loss in Indiana, “Obviously, this was a letdown but the series is tied. We still have confidence in the guys that we have and we’ve just got to keep fighting.”

Carlisle also warned, “New York is a team that has shown that it has an indomitable will to compete and rise above anything people say they can’t do. We’ve seen it throughout the season, we’ve seen it in this series… everything is going to be a situation where you’ve got your hands completely full.”

While that’s all true, if the Knicks don’t have a good response to a humbling Game 4 defeat, they could be the ones that have their own hands completely full with trying to win the series and advancing.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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