Indiana Pacers cruise past New York Knicks, tie series

INDIANAPOLIS — Blowing out a visiting team in a playoff game is commonplace. What mattered more in the wake of the Indiana Pacers121-89 lopsided defeat of the New York Knicks in Sunday’s game is whether it was an aberration or a tipping point.

The Pacers’ game plan has become clear over their weekend sweep to even the second-round series 2-2: Do everything in their power to wear out the wounded and weary Knicks with giant emphasis on Jalen Brunson.

That has meant pressuring him as soon as he gets the ball, no matter where it is on the court. It has meant putting a bigger and more rugged defender, Aaron Nesmith, on him and challenging the referees by playing Brunson with much more physically. And it has meant using their depth advantage to play at speed, trying to run the Knicks to exhaustion.

A lot of things contributed to Sunday’s result. The Pacers shot the ball brilliantly, making 57% of their shots and knocking down 14 3-pointers. The Knicks looked sluggish and a step slow. Especially guards Donte DiVincenzo, who shot just 3-of-17 over his past five quarters as his hot streak ended, and Josh Hart, who finally admitted Sunday that he’s feeling fatigued after playing the first 10 quarters of the series without a break.

“I’m supposed to be the energy guy of the team and I didn’t do anything,” said Hart, who had just two points and three rebounds. “I gave nothing. I put that on my shoulders.”

But it’s Brunson who is the bellwether for the Knicks, and the Pacers know it. This series appears like it might hinge on whether Brunson, who has established a reputation for rising to the occasion especially when he’s doubted, can do it yet again with the series now being essentially a best-of-three.

“His ascension to what he’s become as a player, not many people have made a jump quite like him and I think we just need to make him work as much as possible and try to exert as much energy [as you can],” said Pacers guard T.J. McConnell, who is part of the effort. “He’s obviously a great player, and we just got to keep picking him up 94 feet and try to make things tough on him.”

Over the past two games, Brunson is shooting 9-of-27 against Nesmith. There’s evidence of fatigue in Brunson’s game, not to mention his sore right foot that popped up during Game 2. Over the two games in Indiana, Brunson missed 10 jumpers short. Also, per Second Spectrum tracking, Brunson was jumping about 2.5 inches lower on his shots than his season-long average.

He scored 18 points Sunday but shot just 6-of-17. He was just 16-of-42 overall in Games 3 and 4 against the Pacers’ new aggressive, energy-zapping look.

Brunson, as is his style and the Knicks’ creed, rejected the premise.

“We can talk about fresher legs and you can give us all the pity that we want,” Brunson said. “Yeah, we’re shorthanded, but that doesn’t matter right now. We have what we have and we need to go forward with that. … There is no excuse. There’s no excuse whatsoever. If we lose, we lose. That’s what that was.”

Losing Mitchell Robinson, now out for the season because of an ankle injury, and OG Anunoby, out the past two games and likely Game 5 because of a hamstring injury suffered in Game 2, the Knicks are starting to show signs of wear.

The Pacers were especially looking to take advantage of this as the afternoon start meant there was less than 48 hours between Games 3 and 4. The Pacers led 34-14 after one quarter with Tyrese Haliburton jump-starting the team with a pair of 3-pointers out of the gate on his way to 20 points.

Indiana eventually pushed the lead to as much as 30 points before halftime with Pascal Siakam and Myles Turner combining to go 9-of-10 shooting as they led a parade to the basket with the Knicks unable to stay in front of their man on defense.

“We’re disappointed,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “And the thing is we can’t have a hangover, we have to fix it and we have to come with a will and a determination to respond to what happened. And this team has responded all year, so that’s what we’re expecting to do. We got to put the work into it and be ready to go.”

Thibodeau pulled the plug late in the third quarter, trying to at least give the Knicks’ front line some rest ahead of Tuesday’s Game 5. After the coach talked to the team following the merciful final buzzer, Knicks guard Miles McBride said some of the team leaders spoke to the room about the need to bounce back in Game 5.

“We’ve already talked about how we’re going to fix this,” said McBride, who broke out of a slump to score 16 points. “So, we’ll bounce back a lot better.”

The Pacers haven’t lost at home since March 18, a streak of 10 games, including 5-0 in the playoffs. The Knicks, who are now just 13-16 when Anunoby doesn’t play this season, are placing more urgency on Tuesday’s game at Madison Square Garden.

“New York is a team that has shown that it has an indomitable will to compete and rise above anything people say they can’t do,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “And we’ve seen it throughout the season. We’ve seen it in this series. We’re believers in that, and so we got to focus on us. … Everything is going to be a situation where you’ve got your hands completely full.”

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