May 25, 2024

How can the Pacers ‘learn some things for Game 2’? Here are three adjustments

In the final minute of the fourth quarter of the Indiana Pacers’ 121-117 loss to the New York Knicks, two controversial events played a significant role in Game 1’s outcome.

With the game tied at 115 with 52.0 seconds remaining, Aaron Nesmith was whistled for a kicked ball violation, despite it appearing as though the ball hit Nesmith’s hand instead of his foot. On Tuesday, the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report confirmed the Pacers’ initial suspicion that it was an incorrect call, but Indiana couldn’t have done anything about it because kicked ball violations are not reviewable, a fact Pacers coach Rick Carlisle admitted he knew following the game.

Four possessions later, with the Pacers down one with 18.4 seconds remaining, officials called an offensive foul on Myles Turner for an illegal screen in a pick-and-roll with Tyrese Haliburton. That play was reviewable, so Carlisle asked for a challenge, but the NBA’s replay officials in Secaucus, N.J. confirmed the call. (The Last Two Minute Report confirmed that call as well on Tuesday.)

In both situations, the Knicks made a positive play following a controversial call.

Following the game, it would have been easy to suggest both moments swung the game in New York’s favor, but Carlisle was not interested in doing such a thing. Instead, the 22-year NBA veteran head coach, who has won 943 regular-season games and another 67 playoff games, focused on what his team could have done better throughout the game to come away with a win.

“There’s so many events in an NBA game,” Carlisle said. “They’re always a sharp focus on the last minute, but there were things that happened with five or six minutes left that really hurt us. We had one play where one of our guys took a wild run to try to gamble and steal the ball, and it turned into a four-point play for them. I think we had a five-point lead at the time, and so, it’s not just the last minute or two. It’s a whole game. The whole fourth quarter.

“So this is a great experience for our guys. It comes at a cost. It’s so fun. But we’re gonna have to learn some things for Game 2.”

This was the fourth-quarter play Carlisle was emphasizing in his postgame press conference:

Rather than focusing on his defensive assignment, Nesmith tried to sneak up on Isaiah Hartenstein and force the Knicks center into a turnover as he brought the ball up. Instead, Hartenstein saw the trap coming and dished it back to Hart, who ran down an open lane to the rim and drew a foul on Turner.

The Pacers may still have given up a bucket on that possession if Nesmith had just gotten back in transition and defended Hart in a half-court setting, but Nesmith’s overzealous defensive approach created an easy offensive opportunity for Hart.

As Carlisle emphasized in his postgame press conference, the Pacers will be much better served focusing on things they can control before Game 2 rather than complaining about officiating or wasting time trying to prove something could have changed with a different call.

Looking at the film from Game 1, here are three things that stand out heading into Game 2:

The Pacers know Hart. Offensively this season, as a team they wreaked havoc on the league doing what Hart does as an individual player.

As a team that pushes the tempo in every game, they know how difficult it is for opponents to deal with a squad that looks for transition opportunities every possible moment. While it remains to be seen if Hart is going to play all 48 minutes of every game in this series as he did in Game 1, the Pacers need to do a better job remembering that he will push the ball as often as possible.

“He’s probably one of the best rebounder wings in the league, if not the best rebounding wing in the league,” Haliburton said on Tuesday. “You got to match his intensity there when he’s crashing. He was getting downhill, getting to the free throw yesterday.

“And then just in transition, when he gets the ball, I think everybody in the world knows he’s going left to right, Euro step. Still, he gets to it. I think we all do a better job of just containing them, showing bodies. Which I thought we did really well last (series), especially with Dame (Lillard) and Khris (Middleton) and those guys, is showing bodies when we can in transition, so we’ve got to do a better job and we will tomorrow.”

In Game 1, including free throw chances, Hart tallied 10 of his 24 points on transition opportunities.

Including Nesmith’s gaffe on the aforementioned fourth-quarter possession, Hart scored twice in transition following made baskets. He also assisted on a Donte DiVincenzo 3 immediately following Obi Toppin’s spectacular between-the-legs dunk in the third quarter.

Hart put on an all-out attack on the rim in transition and the Pacers did not handle it well.

“We gotta do much better containing Hart in transition,” Carlisle said on Tuesday. “When he gets a defensive rebound, he’s great at just taking it and knifing his way full-court to the basket. He’s a guy we gotta treat like, you know, Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and (Damian) Lillard and guys like that, that are full court high-speed attackers. He really had a high impact on the game yesterday.”

Finding a balance on Brunson

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson is one of the NBA’s toughest players to guard. His herky-jerky game, replete with elite touch and deadly outside shooting, is difficult for any team to contain, but the Pacers have to do a better job executing on defense in the moments that matter most.

“Our overall team defense has got to be better,” Carlisle said. “Certainly we have to be better in all areas. Everything. Pressure on the ball, our positioning, our ability to show our hands and stay out of fouls. We got to keep Brunson off the free throw line. He’s gonna get their some. But getting there 14 times is too many. It’s too many.”

In the fourth quarter, Brunson shot eight of his 14 free throws. He shot three of them in the final 12.7 seconds, but there were also two drives in which the Pacers fouled Brunson as he was attempting shots. One of those fouls came against Nesmith with 3:29 remaining:

But the play Brunson made on the Knicks’ previous offensive possessions shows why he is such a difficult player to defend.

Immediately before Nesmith crowded Brunson and fouled him on the reach-in, Andrew Nembhard had given him too much space and let Brunson rise up for a 3-pointer:

First, the Pacers gave Brunson too much space and then not enough. It is the cat-and-mouse game that Brunson can play with defenders that makes him so difficult to limit on any given night and he showed that off throughout the fourth quarter, including on DiVincenzo’s big 3 with 40.4 seconds left.

That 3 was a defensive possession the Pacers did not execute well enough.

The Knicks wisely put DiVincenzo one pass away from Brunson, but the double-team that the Pacers sent at Brunson didn’t bother him at all. Nembhard had already allowed Brunson inside the 3-point arc before he got physical with the Knicks point guard. Then, with Nesmith running toward Brunson from below the free-throw line, he could not take away the passing lane to the high quadrant on the left wing. Ultimately, the Pacers let Brunson get too far inside the 3-point line without enough resistance before sending a late double that did little to affect Brunson.

The Pacers need to continue to give Brunson challenging defensive looks, so throwing different defenders and strategies at him will be useful moving forward, but the Pacers also need to execute those strategies. Brunson makes it incredibly difficult, but the defensive execution can be better in Game 2.

Better clutch play from Haliburton

While some may have disagreed with the officials’ willingness to call an illegal screen in the waning moments of a game, it was the correct call, confirmed both through the replay system and the Last Two Minute Report.

Ultimately, while reasonable people can debate whether or not they want the game called that tightly at the end of games, the foul and resulting turnover on that play do not happen if Haliburton and Turner are on the same page offensively. If they are more connected, Turner is clearly set on the screen and the Pacers do not have to worry about an offensive foul being called.

And it’s important to note that Turner’s offensive foul with 18.4 seconds remaining was not the only mistake Haliburton and Turner made together in the pick-and-roll late in Game 1. Three minutes earlier, Haliburton threw an off-target pass to Turner and OG Anunoby took it the other way for a dunk to give the Knicks a two-point lead.

“I just gotta be better,” Haliburton said on Tuesday. “The moving screen was on me. The turnover, he didn’t didn’t quite roll where I thought he was gonna and OG got the steal. That was on me.

“So I think it’s less about miscommunication with Myles and more on Tyrese. I gotta be better in Game 2.”

In Game 1, Haliburton put up six points on 2-of-6 shooting, eight assists and four steals in 36 minutes. It was the fewest shots he had taken in a game since he put up nine points on 4-of-7 shooting in Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. That first game against the Bucks was the only time he took fewer than 10 shots in a game in the first round, so maybe the same will be true in Game 2 against the Knicks.

No matter what happens, the Pacers will need Haliburton to be better on Wednesday to tie the series before it heads to Indianapolis for Game 3 on Friday.

(Photo of Josh Hart and Tyrese Haliburton: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)