The Knicks got their reinforcements from Detroit, but they were still too undermanned to hang with the high-flying Pacers.
Good morning! We’ve finally made it: the last week of the “first half” of the NBA season, which of course is really the first two thirds of the regular season, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Either way, the break can’t come soon enough for these Knicks, who are as in need of a respite as any team in the league. We’ll get into why that is, as well as how it manifested on Saturday night, right now…
Game 53: Knicks 111, Pacers 125
In a New York minute…
Saturday’s first half was as close as any this season, with Indiana’s five-point advantage late in the second quarter marking the highest margin for either team. Despite the Pacers seemingly making every shot at times (68 percent in the first half), they led by just three points at halftime thanks to New York winning the possession battle 44-38. The game started to turn in the third though, as the Knicks’ lack of healthy center depth was exposed. Despite Jalen Brunson’s usual brilliance, the dam finally broke in the fourth as Hali and the Pacers ran away with it late, classic Knicks fake comeback notwithstanding.
1. Defenseless. I want to preface this by acknowledging that advanced stats aren’t the be all, end all. They’re one of many useful tools that can help us better understand player and team performance when placed in the proper context.
Well, Saturday night certainly gave us a lot of context for just how important New York’s missing players are to their defense, but in case you weren’t sure, there are some numbers to back it up.
According to Dunks & Threes, among 191 players averaging at least 24 minutes a night, New York has three of the top nine guys in Defensive EPM, or Estimated Plus-Minus - a tool that approximates overall impact on that side of the court. Those three are Isaiah Hartenstein (who ranks 1st among all NBA players in DEPM), OG Anunoby (7th among players averaging at least 24 minutes, 11th overall) and Mitchell Robinson (9th among 24MPG+ players, 13th overall).
For the first time all season, none were available to play as Mitch and OG continue to recover from their surgeries and I-Hart was resting a sore Achilles.
The loss of their top three defenders (plus Jericho Sims, who was still out with an illness) manifested itself in several ways on Saturday. The most obvious was that Indiana shot 61 percent from the field, which is the highest figure the Knicks have allowed this season.
That came about in a multitude of ways - some familiar, others not so much. For the second time this season, the Pacers made roughly half of their threes1. We see teams get hot from outside against the Knicks from time to time, and it felt like every corner three was going in for the second straight game.
Far more jarring was seeing an opponent have their way at the basket. On the year, New York allows just 47.4 points in the painted area, which is 7th fewest among all teams. The Pacers, meanwhile, allow a league-high 59.9 points per game in the paint. On Saturday though, the script was flipped, as Indy outscored the Knicks 62-54 in the paint. Pascal Siakam, Myles Turner, Isaiah Jackson and jitterbug T.J. McConnell combined to shoot 26-of-30 on 2-point shots, as New York had no rim protection to speak of.
That brings us to…
2. Empty middle. I wrote at the end of last week that the nice thing about the Knicks after their two trades is that they’ve become one of the most versatile teams in the league. Not only can they put together a plethora of lineup combinations, but they have a lot of ways to counter weaknesses with strengths. If they have to go with an offense-first perimeter group short on defense? One of their top centers can make up the difference. If they don’t have either Mitch or I-Hart available? OG is there to pick up the slack.
But with all of their skeleton key pieces on the shelf, the result was that both healthy centers got exposed. Taj Gibson looked every bit of 38 years old, while Precious Achiuwa didn’t play any taller than his listed height of 6'8".
The good news, according to Steve Popper, is that Sims traveled with the team to Houston, so at least one of their normal bigs will be back. Hopefully Hartenstein’s absence is also limited to one game.
We’ll have to wait a big longer for OG, who will be out through at least the first handful of games after the break, but shoring up the middle should help mitigate that loss, as should two opponents who aren’t quite as imposing as Indiana.
Houston and Orlando both rank among the bottom 10 offenses in the NBA.
3. New Additions. All in all, it was a welcome debut for Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks even if neither had the perfect night. Bogey shot just 3-of-10 but finished with 11 points and looked like a guy who will fit right in the more comfortable he gets.
Simply watching him exploit a mismatch off the dribble was a welcome sight for a depleted roster:
As for old friend Alec Burks (or Burk, as he remains affectionately known as by Clyde), we got the full AB experience.
After a dreadful (and likely nerve-induced) first half stint that featured nearly as many turnovers and missed shots (6) as minutes played (7), Burks settled down after halftime and reminded everyone how much he can help. In the second half, he hit 5-of-8 from the field for 17 points, including a fourth quarter flurry that almost had the Pacers sweating this out in the final minutes.
One of his first half miscues also led to one of the funniest moments of the season:
Better luck next time, Obi.
Play of the Day
There are other NBA players who can rise and fire over a double team.
I just don’t know how many of those players are 6'2" with a 6'4" wingspan.
More on JB in a bit.
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
⭐️ Alec Burks
⭐️ ⭐️ Precious Achiuwa
The wildest thing about all the Taj lament after Saturday’s loss is that the numbers say he was the more effective defender in the middle. The Knicks allowed a very respectable 113.2 points per 100 possessions in his 19 minutes, but 132.3 during Achiuwa’s time at center.
Even so, I’ll give Precious the nod as the second best Knick in this game amongst an underwhelming crop. He was neck and neck with Brunson for the biggest reason this was a three-point game at the half, putting up 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting while swiping two steals and a block. He seemed to tire after halftime, but he certainly wasn’t alone with that distinction. As has been the case a lot lately, he had a few flashes that left you wanting to see more.
I covered Burks above, so I’ll just add here that it was good to see him back in a Knick uniform. There’s also some irony in the fact that he passed off the Knicks’ official “Law of Diminishing Returns” torch to Josh Hart, who replaced AB as the guy who will look great in 20-25 minutes but less so when he’s overextended. Now, with both guys on the same roster, hopefully the team can get healthy soon enough for them to slot into their proper rolls and not be pushed past their limits to their (and our) detriment.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Jalen Brunson: A tip of the cap to New York Basketball’s must-follow account for pointing out the below stat yesterday morning:
If you’re doing the math on the timeline, 32 years takes us back past ‘93-94 and ‘92-93, two seasons in which Patrick Ewing finished 4th and 5th in MVP voting respectively. The previous year, another top-five MVP finish for Pat, saw him score 35 or more in exactly 11 games, which is the same number he hit in ‘90-91.
We have to go back to the ‘89-90 season, when Ewing averaged 28.6 a night, for the first and only time he topped 35 points more than 11 times in a season (he did so 21 times) en route to his lone appearance on the All-NBA 1st Team.
There is of course some vital context here, which is that scoring is higher now than it has been in over 50 years, which is why Brunson’s 27.5 points places him only ninth in the league, whereas Melo finished second in the NBA with the same scoring average a decade ago (along with three other top-three finishes when Anthony scored between 25.5 and 28.6 a night). A few decades earlier, Ewing’s 28.6 placed him third behind only MJ and the Mailman.
Even with that caveat though, we are witnessing one of the top three scorers the Knicks have employed in the last four decades. Of that there is no dispute.
After he dropped 39 points on 25 shots (while going only 1-of-5 from deep, no less), Brunson is up to 32.9 points over his last dozen games. Only Luka and Embiid (who appeared in just five games) have scored more over this stretch.
This is what a full-fledged MVP candidate looks like. Even amidst a small rough patch for the team, let’s make sure we appreciate the individual brilliance we’re witnessing here.
🏀 Has the 3-point fairy tale for Deuce McBride finally come to an end? After missing his only two attempts from behind the arc against Indy, he’s now 5-for-22 over his last four games. For as well as he’s played, if the threes aren’t falling, it’s tough to see him getting significant minutes after the trade even with some regulars banged up.
At the very least, he won’t have to see TJ McConnell again this regular season (other than in his nightmares). That was tough to watch.
🏀 We had a classic Thibs moment as the 4th quarter wound down, and not one of the good ones. Despite being down by 22 with under five minutes to play, Thibs didn’t remove Jalen Brunson (or Donte DiVincenzo and Precious Achiuwa, who ended up playing 39 and 43 minutes, respectively) from the game. Was he crazy, or crazy like a fox? Thanks to Burks’ exploits, New York got the lead down to 12 with just over two to go, but even then it seemed like a bridge too far.
Thibs gonna Thibs. It’s all part of the package, for better and for worse.
🏀 With New York’s loss and the Cavs, Bucks and Sixers all winning, the Knicks now trail Cleveland by three games for second place and Milwaukee by one game for third. Philly sits 1.5 games back, although they head to Ohio to face the Cavs tonight, so one of those teams is getting an L. Indiana, meanwhile, is just 3.5 games back of New York and took the season series with this one. Ignore them at your own peril.
The Knicks head to Houston to face the Rockets tonight. Isaiah Hartenstein is questionable while Jericho Sims figures to play. Alperen Sengun is questionable as well.
Houston has fallen off quite a bit after their 13-9 start and now sits 12th in the West having lost 20 of their last 30 games, including four straight. Their last win vs a team currently in the top six in either conference was against the Bucks on January 6, but their negative 2.5 net rating since them suggests a team that is still fighting hard. Here’s the link for tonight’s halftime zoom.
The Knicks are good and will be fine as they continue to deal with a rash of injuries.
But after two significant in-season trades, “good” and “fine” are no longer the standard. This team has a new set of lofty aspirations. If they want to make good on those, they’ll need to dig even deeper to overcome their plight, as unfair as that ask may be.
The All-Star break is just three days away, but there’s still work left to be done.
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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
It’s mildly infuriating that the Knicks have allowed at least 48 percent shooting in just eight of 53 games, but half of those eight have come against the Pacers and Bucks.