May 25, 2024

Direction of Knicks-Pacers series, injuries, adjustments needed, X-factors and more

This series could go either way.

The Indiana Pacers could capitalize on their momentum after pulling off two straight home wins. The New York Knicks overcome a short-handed roster to squeeze out a couple more victories.

The Knicks and Pacers are tied at two games apiece heading into a pivotal Game 5 at 8 p.m. (ET) Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.

Knicks writer Fred Katz and Milwaukee Bucks writer Eric Nehm, who is covering the Pacers during the postseason, discuss the X-factors, how expectations have changed and more.

Here are five pressing questions and their five pressing answers:

How has your perspective on this series changed after four games?

Katz: Let’s get to the obvious one: the injuries.

The Knicks have lost OG Anunoby, possibly for the series. Mitchell Robinson reaggravated his left ankle injury in Game 1 and is now done for the postseason. And most importantly for the Knicks, Jalen Brunson may insist he is “fine,” but he doesn’t look it. Brunson has appeared a step slower since hurting his right foot in Game 2, unable to create space against the Pacers’ persistent on-ball defenders, especially Aaron Nesmith.

Indiana hasn’t just been healthier. The Pacers have played through its scares with more success. Tyrese Haliburton is dealing with a litany of ailments, too: a sprained ankle, back spasms and a sacral contusion. Yet, during the Game 3 and 4 wins, he was the engine that motored the Pacers offense.

Nehm: Aside from the injuries, the biggest surprise to me in this series is how well the Pacers’ bench unit has held up.

With Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau playing his starters heavy minutes, I wondered if Pacers coach Rick Carlisle would lean into a nine or 10-man rotation like he did during the regular season. T.J. McConnell has averaged 12.3 points and 6.5 assists in 21.2 minutes per game. Obi Toppin has knocked down six of his 11 3-point attempts and held up defensively. Rookie Ben Sheppard has knocked down 40 percent of his 3-pointers.

Not only has the bench held up in this series, but it’s now a real weapon for the Pacers. Indiana’s bench is providing different looks and matchup issues for the Knicks, and its starters can rest as New York’s starting unit plays well over 40 minutes each night.

Do you think the Knicks have finally run out of gas? Or will Game 4 just be a momentary blip?

Katz: It is my job to scrutinize the Knicks, to watch every second they play and then check it out a second time just to be sure, to find out the team’s most minute details, right down to Mamadi Diakite’s garbage time technical foul. And yet, I don’t know.

What’s clear is that the minutes caught up to them in Game 4 when they were listless. The defense was sloppy. Some of their best stoppers, such as Josh Hart, couldn’t stay in front of drivers. The Pacers rocked them in transition. A team whose energy is its defining characteristic lacked all of it.

I’m not sure if the energy will return. Sometimes, no matter how much will a group has, the body is capable of only so much. But one part I do believe: The mental mistakes the Knicks made in Game 4 and the botched defensive rotations or busted plays, won’t occur again Tuesday. The Knicks know how to execute. You don’t forget that overnight.

Nehm: I’m going to take a page out of Carlisle’s playbook and say that the Knicks are going to be back to their normal form on Tuesday night.

The afternoon tip time on Sunday didn’t do the Knicks any favors and, after an early flight home on Sunday night, they will have spent two nights at home before Game 5. All season long, the Knicks have shown incredible will and fight. I’m not expecting anything less in front of the raucous home crowd at Madison Square Garden.

What is one adjustment you could see the team you cover making in Game 5?

Katz: I could see the Knicks taking a page out of the Denver Nuggets’ book. With Jamal Murray not 100 percent, Denver adjusted its offense. Starting in Game 3 of their series with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Nuggets used Aaron Gordon to bring the ball up more. Murray freed himself from it and it has opened up opportunities for him.

The Knicks could try something similar with their hobbled point guard. Brunson has become a master at swerving around screens. The Pacers’ full-court press has slowed New York’s offense. The Knicks could stop inbounding the ball to whoever T.J. McConnell is guarding and place it in the hands of Hart or Donte DiVincenzo. They could begin their offense from there with pin-down actions for Brunson or dribble handoffs with Isaiah Hartenstein.

Nehm: This is a tough spot because it feels like the Pacers have thrown their counterpunch, and they’ve been waiting for the Knicks to do the same. But it hasn’t happened yet. So, as a coach, why change what has been working so well for you for the last two games?

The Pacers just won by 32 points, so there should not be an awful lot to change. But I do wonder if they will lean into Pascal Siakam more offensively in Game 5. In the first four games, Indiana has made 41.5 percent from 3 and shot well both at home and on the road, but Game 5 could end up being an ugly, grind-it-out affair. Siakam’s size advantage over Hart could have a stabilizing effect on the Pacers.

What player could be the X-factor in grabbing two more wins?

Katz: Josh Hart. Hart said it himself: He is the Knicks’ main source of energy, and on Sunday, it didn’t appear that way. Hart struggled defensively. He grabbed only three rebounds. He was not his usual bouncy self defensively.

The Knicks reflect Hart’s enthusiasm. If he guns for 15-plus rebounds over 40 minutes, New York can recapture its mojo. But if he appears as lethargic as he did in Game 4, then the Knicks are in trouble.

Nehm: Myles Turner. Carlisle has insisted that Turner’s point totals shouldn’t be used as the measuring stick for his success in this series, but his 3-point shooting could swing a game at Madison Square Garden in the Pacers’ favor.

And the Pacers need to win one on the road to win this series. If Turner can get hot by connecting on four or more 3-pointers as he did against the Bucks in Round 1, it could be a difference-maker.

What needs to happen for the Knicks or Pacers to take this series?

Katz: The Knicks need to get Brunson going.

The Knicks move as Brunson does. Anunoby will miss Game 5. Robinson, Bojan Bogdanović and Julius Randle remain out. Especially with all the injuries, Brunson is their source of offense. The attack has dampened since his foot injury when he hasn’t created shots at an All-Star level.

But Brunson remains one of the league’s top scorers. He is, as Thibodeau says, an offense unto himself. When he’s draining floaters and fadeaways, New York wins games. If he can do that two more times in this series, the Knicks have a chance to win it.

Nehm: Heading into Game 3, the Pacers opted to put 6-foot-5 wing Nesmith and his 6-10 wingspan on Brunson. It’s unclear if that’s had an impact on Brunson or if he just isn’t healthy enough to make the same impact offensively.

Limiting Brunson is the first thing that they need to do to beat the Knicks twice in the next three games. After that, it may be as simple as continuing to get high-level production from Haliburton and executing well defensively.

After a poor effort in Game 3, the Pacers were much more locked in defensively, giving up fewer good 3-point looks to DiVincenzo and helping more successfully off of Hart. If the Pacers limit Brunson, get high-level production from Haliburton and execute defensively, they can take two of the next three games and make a shocking Eastern Conference finals appearance.

(Photo of Donte DiVincenzo and Tyrese Haliburton: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)