If this season is about determining keepers as the franchise attempts to build a championship-caliber roster in 2019, there are several emerging already.
But there are also areas of need that stand out to the discerning eye and if one is the need to add a tough wing defender, another is to find someone with a reliable handle who can break down pressure defense.
While the Knicks once again employed — say it Michael Buffer: “DA ZOOOOONE” — to reasonable success, the Pacers simply, as David Fizdale said, “turned up the heat” and his young team struggled with it. In the final four minutes of the game, the Knicks had a couple of turnovers and had a few shots blocked.
“They started getting after us,” Fizdale said, “and we started holding the ball.”
Emmanuel Mudiay, who had 18 points and 6 assists and tried to work some more fourth quarter magic, admitted the Knicks “caved into” the Pacers pressure defense. The game teetered a few times in the fourth quarter, as the Pacers hit some threes to start busting that zone and took an 88-81 lead with 7:26 to go, but the Knicks still put up a fight. Tim Hardaway Jr. blocked a shot by Victor Oladipo and Mudiay took it down the court.
The Knicks had one of their last well-executed possessions of the game at that point, as the ball moved from one side to the other until it found Kevin Knox wide open in the corner for a three-pointer. The rookie calmly drilled the shot to make it a 91-88 deficit with 4:19 to go.
But after that, the offense sputtered. Thad Young made defensive plays in consecutive possessions against Noah Vonleh and Enes Kanter. Hardaway Jr. was bailed out on a deep three when Oladipo fouled him on the shot. Hardaway made two of three from the line to cut it to 95-90 with 2:47 left.
Young (notice the trend of him making a difference late in the game) then got to a big offensive rebound off a missed three to push it to a 7-point deficit. Mudiay missed a three, Hardaway missed on a drive and then Knox had the ball go off him out of bounds. After Myles Turner hit a pair of free throws to extend it to a 9-point game, Kanter threw a bad pass for another turnover (he had five in the game). Oladipo made 1 of 2 from the line to make it a 100-90 score with less than 90 seconds to go. Hardaway made a jumper that cut it to 8 with 1:15 left, but the dagger came on the next Pacers possession when Oladipo dropped a nifty pass to Turner for a three that gave Indiana a 103-92 lead with 57.3 seconds left.
Mudiay lost the ball and the free throw parade began. The Pacers hit 7 of 8 from the line in the last 50 seconds to make what seemed like a good defensive game into allowing 110 points. But even that was a small victory when you consider the Knicks allow 115 points per game on the season (fifth-highest in the NBA) and this was only the second time in the last 10 games they have “held” an opponent to 110 points. Teams are averaging 118.2 points per game in that span.
Meanwhile, the Pacers have held opponents to 101 points or less in each game of their 7-game winning streak.
– The zone certainly helped again, but it’s not something Fizdale will want to employ full-time. The Pacers don’t really use the three-point shot at the rate most teams in the NBA, but they took advantage of the zone by taking 34 threes. Oladipo was 5 for 8 from downtown and former Knick Doug McDermott made 3 of 5. The Pacers did a good job moving the ball through the zone — you can flash bigs into the paint when the Knicks bigs vacate to avoid a Defensive Three Seconds Violation — and the more opponents prepare for it, the more they’ll find ways to beat it. But you can’t deny it’s effectiveness or the enthusiasm the Knicks seem to show in it. “Everybody knows what spot to get into, which is great because we really haven’t been practicing it that much,” Hardaway Jr. said. “It’s great that guys are catching on to it.“
– There was another small victory in this game: the Knicks didn’t fall behind early. That had become a trend over the last few games, where the Knicks would fall behind by as many as 20 points in the first half only to make exhausting comebacks in the second half. In this game, the Knicks stayed toe-to-toe with the Pacers throughout. Mudiay, so often a fourth-quarter scorer, seemed more determined to be a difference-maker early with 10 points and 4 assists in the first half. Kanter had 14 points and 5 rebounds in the first half and finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds.
– Frank Ntilikina played through a mild ankle sprain, which he suffered in Charlotte on Friday. He looked very aggressive on defense and was whistled for an absolutely terrible foul call on what replays showed was a clean block — a fantastic defensive play — at the rim. Ntilikina struggled with his shooting (1 for 4) but managed 4 assists in just 18:23.
– Trey Burke returned to the lineup after missing the previous six games with a knee sprain. There was clearly some rust and some issues with his elevation, which affected his shot. Burke was 1 for 7 in 12:35. He finished with 3 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Lance Thomas was also back in the lineup after a procedure to clean out his knee kept him out for the past month. He did not play.
– More on the injury front: rookie Mitchell Robinson (sprained left ankle) sat out the game and guard Daymean Dotson (sore right shoulder) was also out for a second straight game. Allonzo Trier (strained left hamstring) missed a fourth straight game.
[Coverage Of Knicks-76ers Wednesday At 6:30 PM On MSG & MSG GO.]