May 25, 2024

Bucks-Pacers preview: Can Indiana slow Jalen Brunson? Will New York contain Tyrese Haliburton?


Get your Sony Discman ready, because this is so 1990s.

The New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers are ready to play each other in a playoff series for the first time since 2013. What was a regular occurrence in the ‘90s, when these two squads faced off in six postseason series over eight years, is happening again.

This one will be fun.

The Pacers, which downed the Milwaukee Bucks 4-2 in Round 1, are hoping to move onto the conference finals for the first time since 2014. The Knicks, which just beat the Philadelphia 76ers in six games, haven’t advanced that far since 2000, when they played — not so shockingly — the Pacers, who beat them to move onto the finals.

These two teams already have epic playoff games: Reggie Miller’s eight points in 8.9 seconds, the finger roll and the Roy Hibbert block.

Knicks beat writer Fred Katz connected with Bucks beat reporter Eric Nehm, who will be filling in on Pacers coverage during this series, to discuss the upcoming matchup.

Here is their conversation:

Katz: Eric, there are various topics we could hit on to begin this series.

Are the Knicks still bruised after they just exchanged blows with the 76ers for two weeks straight? Can the Pacers slow Jalen Brunson? Can the Knicks bother Tyrese Haliburton?

How do the Knicks defend the Haliburton-Myles Turner pick-and-roll? Who does OG Anunoby guard?

This is slow versus fast, duress versus finesse, one team that wants to beat its opponent down facing another that wants to elude every tag.

What intrigues you most during this series?

Nehm: Typically, this is where I would write something nerdy about the third-quarter defensive rotations that the Pacers made against the Bucks in Game 4, but we’ll have time to get into the weeds throughout the rest of this series. For me, this all starts with Haliburton.

Haliburton did what he needed to do against the Bucks in the first round.

With the series tied 1-1 and 6.7 seconds remaining in overtime, the 24-year-old point guard hit Patrick Beverley with two crossovers, got into the lane and hit a floater, plus the foul, to give the Pacers a three-point lead with 1.6 seconds remaining.

Eventually, the Pacers won that game because of Haliburton’s heroics and with Damian Lillard missing the next two games, that clutch bucket at the end of Game 3 gave the Pacers the advantage they would need to take the whole series. Without Haliburton stepping up in that moment, the Pacers might have dropped that game and the series could have gone much differently.

Insanely cool, clutch playoff moment aside, Haliburton was not at his peak in the first round against the Bucks.

Without Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks cannot be described as a good defensive team. They were terrible at the point of attack all season long, but Bucks coach Doc Rivers deserves credit for putting together a defensive plan that made Haliburton uncomfortable. The hamstring injury that sidelined Haliburton during the regular season and the back spasms he’s been dealing with throughout the playoffs are currently affecting his game.

Against the Bucks, Haliburton put up 16.0 points and 9.3 assists per game, down from 20.1 points and 10.9 assists per game during the regular season. With 56 assists and 16 turnovers, his assist-to-turnover ratio was 3.5 against the Bucks as opposed to 4.7 during the regular season.

Haliburton shot 43.5 percent from the field, including just 29.6 percent from behind the 3-point line. His struggles offensively could’ve just been a function of seeing playoff defense for the first time, but if the Pacers want a chance to upset the Knicks in this series, they are going to need more from Haliburton.

Katz: It’s funny you mention Haliburton’s game winner in Game 3 because that play was a microcosm of what makes the Pacers great when they’re at their best.

No one moves in transition like this team. The Pacers manufacture transition opportunities other teams would never even consider. They run after turnovers and after grabbing defensive rebounds, which the Knicks try, too. But they don’t stop there.

If Brunson hits a layup in the half court but falls in the process, the Pacers will speed the other way. They play at the fastest pace in the league after allowing made baskets, according to inpredictable.com. They are true to their name.

The game winner encapsulated that beautifully.

The play design almost mimicked a transition runway for Haliburton, with the inbounds pass setting him up 70 feet from the basket with a sprinting start and a screen at around half court. Instead of slithering through traffic, Haliburton burst through space. And he floated in an and-1.

The Knicks better be aware. This series won’t move with the same brutish flow as the one against the 76ers. Instead, get ready to run and match up in transition time after time. If the Pacers notice a mismatch, they will exploit it.

I’m curious how many players Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau uses because of this. He shrunk the rotation to seven after Bojan Bogdanović went down for the season with a foot injury that required surgery.

In the second half of Game 6 against Philadelphia, he essentially played six guys, barely using Miles “Deuce” McBride. Can that work against a team that makes you run like the Pacers do? Could Josh Hart, who rested for a total of 15 minutes in six games against Philly, replicate his time on the court against a blazing squad like Indiana’s?

Or does Thibodeau dust off Precious Achiuwa and/or Alec Burks?

But that’s not what I will ask you about, because I have another more intriguing topic.

We’ve discussed the Pacers’ high-powered point guard, but the Knicks have one. And I’m not sure what Indiana is supposed to do against him in the half court.

Part of the reason the 76ers had relative success against Brunson was because of all the long defenders they tossed his way — along with a top-notch game plan that Brunson eventually exploited. Indiana has capable defensive options to stick on him. Aaron Nesmith and Andrew Nembhard fight hard, and Nesmith has a 6-foot-10 wingspan. T.J. McConnell remains one of the league’s most irritating creatures.

But none of them boast the size of Kelly Oubre Jr. or Nicolas Batum.

The Sixers guarded Brunson well, and he still dropped 39-plus points in each of the final four games of the series.

How do you see the Pacers handling him? And how do you see Brunson responding?

Nehm: I think your assessment is correct. Nembhard, Nesmith and McConnell feel like the three Pacers that will see the most time on Brunson to start the series.

Despite their differences in size, all three of them attack defense the same way under Rick Carlisle in Indiana. All three players will crowd Brunson as much as possible with Nembhard and McConnell likely picking him up with full-court pressure.

The Pacers spent the series against Milwaukee pressing its ballhandlers full court. And they’ll likely start in a basic drop-and-chase, pick-and-roll coverage, but the Pacers guards are good at remaining connected and physical as they get over the top of screens, so they will make Brunson work.

While Brunson does not do much foul grifting, it will be interesting to see if he can draw any fouls on Nembhard in the moments in which the Pacers guard is a bit overzealous with his physicality. Damian Lillard caught Nembhard multiple times in the first round when Nembhard was just way too close to him as he rose for a jump shot.

The Pacers were a bad defensive team the entire season, and they posted the fifth-worst defensive rating of the first round. Antetokounmpo didn’t play a second for the Bucks, Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton played through injuries and Pat Connaughton, Pat Beverley and Andre Jackson Jr. were bringing up the ball at various times throughout the series. Brunson should respond to that by doing what he always does and dissecting it with a crafty set of pivots and step-throughs, plus stepback and pull-up jumpers.

Katz: That could be a key in this series. The Pacers allowed more shots in the paint than any other team during the regular season. They will funnel the ball there, but Brunson loves to pull up eight or 10 feet short of the rim and drop in touch shots.

There’s a world where he feasts on those against the Pacers, and Indiana has to shift to a trap just to get the ball out of his hands.

Nehm: We texted briefly about Thibodeau doing his best to search out Haliburton and force the Pacers star to play defense. Thibodeau will make sure Haliburton works defensively, but after their first-round series against the Bucks, I’m not sure the Knicks will need to work that deep into their playbook to get what they want offensively against the Pacers.

That isn’t to say we won’t see that as the series goes on, but the Knicks may come out in their base offensive sets and immediately find success against this Pacers team defensively.

Katz: The Pacers just need to make sure the Knicks don’t scramble their defense — and not just because they want to force difficult shots. If they get mismatched in transition or New York can create switches and then attack, it will hurt Indiana on the boards, too.

The rebounding may be the battle to watch in this series.

The Pacers finished the regular season 26th in defensive rebound rate. That won’t cut it against the Knicks, which were the best offensive-rebounding squad in the league and only got better during the Sixers series.

They wrecked Philadelphia, a big, physical team, on the glass for six games. Encourage Indiana’s bigs to stray from the paint more than they prefer, and between Hartenstein, Robinson and Hart, the Knicks could wreak havoc on the glass.

The time to focus on the boards most will be with the second unit. The Pacers love playing a reserve lineup that includes Siakam and Obi Toppin as their two bigs, which sounds like a dream to the former contingent of Knicks diehards who just wanted to see Toppin in small-ball units with Julius Randle during his time in New York.

The Pacers speed up the game in those moments. But the man they may have to fight down low, Robinson, is one of the league’s best offensive rebounders.

If the Knicks destroy the rebounding battle, they will put themselves in good shape to win the series. But Eric, the Pacers were a 47-win team with an elite offense for a reason.

If I told you Indiana were to win this series, who or what would you say is the major swing factor?

Nehm: The 3-point variance can always be a major swing piece in any small sample, so that is where I will turn for the Pacers to spring an upset on the No. 2-seeded Knicks.

The Pacers were at their best against the Bucks in the first round when Myles Turner put their drop pick-and-roll coverage into a bind with his 3-point shooting. In Games 2-4 of the series, Turner hit 14 of 25 3-point attempts (56 percent) and even knocked down a career single-game high of seven 3s in the Pacers’ 126-113 Game 4 win in Indianapolis. It’s no coincidence that the Pacers won all three of those games.

If Turner can spread the floor and get some open catch-and-shoot 3-point looks against the Knicks, that could play a major role in the series and make the Knicks change some things up defensively. If they change covers on Turner, maybe that allows for more space for Pascal Siakam or Haliburton and then all of a sudden, the series could look very different.

That same idea could be applied to any of the Pacers’ 3-point shooters, but Turner looks like the biggest threat to go off against the Knicks.

Katz: The Pacers are exhausting. There will be at least one game, maybe more, that morphs into a track meet and hands Indiana a victory. I just am not confident that will happen four times.

So for now, I’m picking the Knicks. They own home-court advantage. They have the best player in the series in Brunson, who just averaged 35.5 points during the six games against the Sixers — and that was after struggling for the first two games. I fear for the Pacers on the boards. One weapon Indiana has not seen from New York all season could sway the advantage even more toward the Knicks.

Anunoby played in none of the three games against the Pacers this season. He’s the Knicks’ defensive game-changer.

The Pacers are a joy to watch. They play fast and together. Their cutting and ball movement are a thing of beauty. But the Knicks play with a similar cohesion.

New York in six.

Nehm: I’ll be honest, I wish we were getting this series with the pre-hamstring injury version of Haliburton. He just hasn’t been the same player since that injury and his recent struggles with back spasms have not made things any easier. He was just such a marvelous heliocentric engine at the start of the season and is not quite as dynamic now.

Against a well-coached team that plays as hard as the Knicks, the Pacers would need the best version of Haliburton to pull off another win. I think Siakam can help steady the Pacers in this series, just as he did throughout the first round against the Bucks, but I don’t think the Pacers have enough to get past the Knicks. I will take the Knicks in five games.

(Photo of Tyrese Haliburton and Jalen Brunson: David Dow / NBAE via Getty Images)





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