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Knicks is short-handed and cumbersome, but the best adjustment for him is to look like him

Knicks is short-handed and cumbersome, but the best adjustment for him is to look like him

INDIANAPOLIS — Jalen Brunson isn’t here for a pity party.

The New York Knicks looked different from themselves on Sunday when they transformed into something else, a mix of lethargy that doesn’t race for offensive rebounds, is late to miss shots and disconnects from forwards in transition.

The Indiana Pacers beat the team 121-89 in Game 4 of their second-round series, which is now tied at 2-2. For the first time during a playoff run that cuts years off the life expectancy of their fans and adds miles to their players’ odometers, the game was anything but close.

Indiana’s lead, which had swelled to 43 points at one point, was so clearly insurmountable that New York coach Tom Thibodeau, a man still clinging to the shock of every lead or retake he’d ever seen, removed his starters during the third quarter.

“We can talk about fresher legs, we can give us all the compassion we want. Yes, we are short-handed, but that doesn’t matter now,” Brunson said. “We have what we have and we have to get on with it. So there is no “we are short-handed”. There is no justification. There is no excuse, at all. If we lose, we lose.”

On Sunday they lost. They did so uncharacteristically.

Even when the Knicks aren’t playing well, they tend to fight. Until Game 4, they had not lost by more than 11 points since March 5.

But the Knicks — who are missing four rotation players in OG Anunoby, Bogan Bogdanovic, Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle — are keeping it together with the ACE bandage these days. And Sunday, show all four quadrants.

The Pacers pummeled loose balls and got ahead on the boards early. With every Knicks jumper that hit the hoop, Indiana moved up the court and created wide-open layups or 3s. If the Pacers missed, they grabbed rebounds. They led 34-11 just 10 minutes into the game.

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One of the teams in this matchup was the best in the NBA on the glass during the regular season. The other finished near the bottom of the league. Those roles were reversed on Sunday when the Pacers outscored the Knicks while beating New York at the break.

Indiana scored 1.87 points per transition play in this game, according to Cleaning the Glass. This is better efficiency than Stephen Curry, the most accurate free throw shooter of all time, going to the line for two shots. New York scored just 0.58 in transition.

“We have to take this L,” Bronson said. “There’s no excuse.”

The usually lively group looked exhausted.

As injuries pile up, the burden on the Knicks’ top players increases. Because of the blowout, Josh Hart got more rest on Sunday than he did during the first nine playoff games combined. Before Game 4, Donte DiVincenzo had gone over 43 minutes for four straight games.

But DiVincenzo scored just seven points and hit just one 3-pointer during the blowout. Hart, who had two points and three rebounds, put the Game 4 loss “on my shoulders” because he is “somebody who brings energy, brings energy, things I didn’t do today.”

Discomfort is growing, and not just among players outside the squad.

Isaiah Hartenstein’s left shoulder hit the field on a fall in the second quarter. He immediately grabbed it, wincing in pain, and said after the game that he thought the injury “probably looked like a pinched nerve.” He added that the x-rays were negative. But Hartenstein continued to play and says he will be ready to play in Game 5.

Brunson is dealing with a foot injury he suffered in the second game. He insists he’s “fine,” not injured anymore, even as he struggles to separate from Pacers defenders, led by physical winger Aaron Nesmith. Brunson scored 18 points in Game 4 on 6-of-17 shooting, including a 0-of-5 showing from 3.

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Even more troubling is that he missed all eight of his shots. Six of those failed. The couple he threw for a long time were two throws 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. That’s what they’ve probably done better than us in the last two games.

The Knicks will return to New York for Game 5, but it’s not as if the Pacers will wake up energized on Monday morning. All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton struggled to walk three steps after finishing his Game 3 news conference, leaning heavily on the railings to his right and left as he hobbled five feet to ground level.

Pacers said he suffered lower back spasms, a sprained right ankle and a sacral contusion. But he finished Game 4 with 20 points, six rebounds and five assists in just 27 minutes.

Halliburton found a way to look like herself. But the Knicks didn’t do that, and it wasn’t just because of flat energy. This wasn’t basically the same team either.

No play this afternoon better exemplified the Knicks’ confusion than the team’s eight-second violation in the first quarter when they were already down by 14 points and starting to let go of the rope. Rarely used backup center Jericho Sims, who caught the inbounds pass, tried to maneuver down the field himself, nearly tripped, picked up his dribble and turned it over moments later. He would receive criticism for the play, but that moment was as much about who didn’t have the ball as it was about who had the ball.

The Knicks had two guards on the court at the time, Brunson and Myles “Deuce” McBride. Both were in the backcourt with Sims but were not open. Once Hart got to Sims, they should have known to hurry his way. Simms is not a ballplayer. He doesn’t hit the press.

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He stood there, waiting for one of the guards to come around him. No one came close. By the time he started dribbling, McBride had drifted out of play, to nearly half the field. Bronson was jogging down the court, not looking at his big man.

In the most stressful moments, the body alone cannot go; Focus can also flutter.

“Do I feel it? Yes. But I think everyone does,” Hart said. “So at the end of the day, it’s the playoffs. You have to do it for yourself, as well as your body.”

The Knicks will spend time before Game 5 looking for fixes.

They might try to open up Brunson off the ball, run him around screens and encourage Hart or DiVincenzo to start the offense. Or maybe they are playing with beginners. McBride started the second half of Game 4 in place of Precious Achiuwa, which spread the offense even more. The Bronson-McBride-DiVincenzo-Hart-Hartenstein lineup is small, but it also dominated during the regular season, outscoring opponents by 33 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.

But the best adjustment the Knicks could make, one that would trump any scheme or adjustment, is to look more like themselves.

“We just have to get back to playing our basketball,” Hartenstein said. “I think this is the more physical team, doing the little things, jumping on the ball, making those second tries. I don’t think we’ve done that in the last two games.”

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