The Knicks are short-handed and tired, but their best adjustment is to look like themselves


INDIANAPOLIS – Jalen Brunson isn't here for a pity party.

The New York Knicks looked different from themselves on Sunday as they transformed into another creature, a mix of lethargy who doesn't chase offensive rebounds, is late to getting balls loose and gets separated from streakers in transition.

The Indiana Pacers defeated them 121–89 in Game 4 of the second-round playoff series, which is now tied 2–2. For the first time during a playoff run that is shaving years off their fans' life expectancies and adding miles to their players' odometers, a game was never close.

Indiana's lead, which had swelled to 43 at one point, was so clearly formidable that New York head coach Tom Thibodeau, a man who still grapples with the shock of every lead given or recaptured, Removed their starting players during the third quarter.

“We can talk about fresh legs, and we can give ourselves all the pity we want. Yes, we're weak, but that doesn't matter right now,'' Brunson said. “We have what we have and we need to move forward with that. So it's not like, 'We're short-handed.' there is no excuse. There is no excuse whatsoever. If we lose, we lose.”

They lost on Sunday. And he did it in an unnatural way.

Even when the Knicks don't play well, they still fight. By Game 4, they had not lost by more than 11 points since March 5.

But the Knicks — who are without four rotation players in OG Anunoby, Bojan Bogdanovic, Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle — are bracing themselves with ACE bandages these days. And on Sunday, it showed in all four quarters.

The pacers cut loose with their balls and got them on the board early. With every Knicks jumper that closed the hoop, Indiana drove down the court and made layups or wide-open 3s. If the Pacers missed, they grabbed their rebound. They took a 34–11 lead just 10 minutes before the start of the game.

One team in this matchup was the best team in the NBA during the regular season. Finished second lowest in the league. Those roles were reversed on Sunday when the Pacers blew away New York at the break to blow away the Knicks.

According to Cleaning the Glass, Indiana scored 1.87 points per transition play in this one. That's better efficiency than Stephen Curry, the most accurate free-throw shooter of all time, getting to the line for two shots. New York scored only 0.58 points in infection.

“We have to take this L,” Brunson said. “There is no excuse.”

The usually agile group appeared drained.

As injuries continue to mount, the burden on the Knicks' top players is also increasing. Because of the blowout, Josh Hart sat out more minutes on Sunday than he had in his first nine playoff games. Heading into Game 4, Donte DiVincenzo had played more than 43 minutes in four consecutive games.

But DiVincenzo scored only seven points and hit only one 3-pointer during the blowout. Hart, who finished with two points and three rebounds, put the Game 4 loss “on my shoulders” because he is “the guy that brings energy, brings excitement, stuff that I didn't do today.”

Uneasiness is growing, and not just among players out of the lineup.

Isaiah Hartenstein's left shoulder collided with the court during a fall in the second quarter. He immediately clutched it, writhing in pain, and said after the game that he believed the injury was “probably like a pinched nerve.” He said the X-rays were negative. But Hartenstein continued to play and said he would be good to go in Game 5.

Brunson is dealing with a foot injury he suffered in Game 2. He insists he is “fine” now that he has no injuries, even as he struggles to separate from Pacers defenders under physical wing Aaron Nesmith. Brunson scored 18 points on 6-of-17 shooting in Game 4, including a 0-5 performance from 3.

Even more worryingly, he made a mistake on all eight of his jump shots. Six of those misses were short; The couple he slingshotted for a long time were both two-pointers in the first quarter when his legs were fresh.

“It's not an excuse at this point,” Hartenstein said. “I think everyone is going through something, I think you just have to find a way. In the last two matches they have probably performed much better than us.

The Knicks will return to New York limping for Game 5, but it's not like the Pacers will be up to speed on Monday morning. All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton struggled to walk down three stairs after finishing his Game 3 news conference, leaning heavily on the railing to both his right and left and staggering five feet to ground level.

He is dealing with lower back spasms, a right ankle sprain and a sacral injury, the Pacers said. But he finished Game 4 with 20 points, six rebounds and five assists in just 27 minutes.

Halliburton found a way to look like him. The Knicks didn't do it — and it wasn't just because of flat energy. This team was fundamentally not itself either.

No play of the afternoon illustrated the Knicks' discombobulation better than the eight-second violation committed in the first quarter, when they were already down by 14 and beginning to let go of the ropes. Seldom-used backup center Jericho Sims, who received the inbound pass, tried to maneuver up the court himself, nearly tripped, picked up his dribble and turned it over moments later. He will be criticized for the play, but that moment was as much about who had the ball as it was about who had the ball.

The Knicks had two point guards on the court at the time, Brunson and Miles “Deuce” McBride. Both were in Sims' backcourt but not open. Once Hart reached Sims, he had to quickly get on his way. Sims is not a ballhandler. He is not beating any press.

He stood at his place and waited for the guards to come around him. No one contacted. By the time he began to dribble, McBride had gone out of the game at close to half court. Brunson was pacing upstairs, not looking at his big man.

In the most tiring moments, the body alone cannot go; Focus may also get lost.

“Do I feel it? Yes. But I think everybody does,'' Hart said. “So at the end of the day, it's the playoffs. You have to desire your own body.”

The Knicks will spend the time before Game 5 looking for improvements.

Maybe they try to get Brunson open more with the ball, running him around screens and encouraging Hart or DiVincenzo to initiate the offense. Or maybe they play with beginners. McBride started the second half of Game 4 in place of Precious Achiuwa, allowing the offense to spread out more. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Brunson-McBride-DiVincenzo-Hart-Hartenstein lineup is smaller, but it also dominated during the regular season, outscoring opponents by 33 points per 100 possessions.

But the best adjustment Nix can make, which will trump any plan or change, is to look like himself.

“We just have to start playing our basketball,” Hartenstein said. “I think it's a more physical team, doing the little things, diving on the ball, getting second tries. I don't think we've been doing that in the last two games.”

(Photo of Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson and Mamadi Diakite: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)


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