Aaron Nesmith
(NBAE/Getty Images)

Pacers Demonstrate Resilience, Depth Despite Coming Up Short in Game 1

NEW YORK — The Pacers and Knicks officially renewed their playoff rivalry on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, and Game 1 lived up to the billing. The two teams went back and forth in a highly competitive thriller that came down to the final minute and wasn't short on storylines or memorable moments.

If this is how the first playoff series between the two Eastern Conference Rivals in over a decade is going to go, then buckle up.

Game 1 went to the Knicks by a final score of 121-117, with Donte DiVincenzo's game-winning 3-pointer with 40.4 seconds proving to be the difference in a dramatic final minute.

The Pacers held the lead for the majority of the second half and withstood numerous New York runs down the stretch, but couldn't answer one last time as the Knicks ultimately prevailed.

"The environment was unreal, it was what you would expect," Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said. "A lot of plays were made. I’m proud of a lot of the plays our guys made.

"They got down four with two and a half minutes to go, and completely kept their poise, scored two baskets, and then we had the ball. You can’t overlook the good things we did, but the things that were mistakes are things we will need to learn from."

The Pacers are a young team with relatively little playoff experience outside of forward Pascal Siakam, but they showed plenty of mettle on the road in a hostile environment in Game 1.

In the heavyweight fight that unfolded on Monday night at the Garden, the Pacers parried away haymaker after haymaker from the Knicks before finally enduring a knockout blow in the final minute.

Indiana dominated the second quarter, outscoring the Knicks 31-22 in the frame to take a six-point lead into halftime. Really, it should have been a nine-point lead, but Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein heaved in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer just before the intermission.

New York made the first of several second-half runs in the third quarter, tying the game three times before finally moving ahead on DiVincenzo's layup with 5:52 remaining in the third. The Knicks briefly pushed their lead to five, only for the Pacers to respond with 10 unanswered points to surge back in front.

The Pacers closed the quarter in style, as T.J. McConnell stripped the ball away from Knicks star guard Jalen Brunson. The ball fell into the hands of highflying Pacers forward Obi Toppin. Always a showman, the New York native and former Knick made a daring decision on the break, opting to go between-the-legs for a dunk, but showed why he is a former Slam Dunk Contest champion by converting the slam.

New York responded with five straight points to get back within two, but Pacers center Myles Turner showed off some shot-making of his own, draining a high-arcing three as the buzzer sounded.

Indiana opened the fourth quarter with a 7-2 run that pushed the lead to 94-85. The Knicks got back within one, but the Pacers parried back once again, with Isaiah Jackson converting a reverse layup and Aaron Nesmith rising up for a poster jam over Mitchell Robinson.

Indiana led 104-99 at the six-minute mark, when Knicks forward Josh Hart converted a basket and drew a foul from Myles Turner. Hart missed the ensuing free throw, but followed his own miss for a layup to complete a four-point possession and once again draw the Knicks within one.

The Pacers again responded, with Siakam converting a crucial jumper that helped push the lead back to five.

The Blue & Gold led 109-104 with a little over four minutes left when the Knicks made another surge, this time reeling off eight unanswered points to move in front, tying the game on two Brunson free throws and taking the lead after OG Anunoby intercepted a Tyrese Haliburton pass and raced down the floor for the dunk.

One might have expected the Pacers to pack it in at that point, down by four with 2:42 to go and the Garden rocking. But instead they scored on their next three possessions, re-taking the lead on Andrew Nembhard's layup with 1:33 to play. Brunson tied the game at 115 on a jumper 19 seconds later. Nembhard then missed a three, which set the stage for an eventful final minute.

As Brunson dribbled across the court, he went left and around a screen that DiVincenzo set on Nesmith. Brunson then attempted to whip the ball back to DiVincenzo, but it was batted away by Nesmith. The Pacers appeared to have forced a turnover, but the referees whistled the play dead, saying that the ball was kicked by Nesmith.

Replays quickly showed that that was not the case — crew chief Zach Zarba confirmed to a pool reporter after the game that upon review, the ball hit Nesmith's hand — but a kicked ball violation is not reviewable.

The Knicks capitalized on the break, as Brunson found DiVincenzo on the wing for the go-ahead 3-pointer on the second-chance possession.

Siakam answered with a layup to make it a one-point game with 26.6 seconds left and the Pacers then successfully trapped Brunson, forcing a turnover with 18.4 seconds to play.

But they would not get a go-ahead shot attempt off, as Turner was whistled for an offensive foul for setting an illegal screen on DiVincenzo with 12.7 seconds left. Carlisle challenged the call, but it was upheld after video review. Nembhard then committed a crucial error by fouling Brunson before an inbound, giving the Knicks one shot and the ball.

Brunson sealed the game with three free throws on that possession to put the game away.

After the loss, while there was lots of attention on the calls made in the final minute, the Pacers deflected away any attempts to blame the referees.

"There are so many events in an NBA game," Carlisle said. "There’s always a sharp focus on the last minute, but there were things that happened with five or six minutes left that really hurt us...It’s not just the last minute or two, it’s the whole game. The whole fourth quarter."

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"We can’t worry about the officiating," McConnell added. "They’re just trying to do their job. There were many plays where we could have made where it didn’t even come down to that. That’s the stuff we’ve got to focus on…We can control plays that we could have made to not have it come down to that."

Despite the outcome, there were plenty of positive takeaways for the Pacers in Game 1.

Their depth was on full display, as Indiana's bench outscored the Knicks' reserves, 46-3. At one point in the second quarter, the Pacers' bench had scored 23 of their first 33 points.

After combining for 41 points in Game 6 against Milwaukee on Thursday, McConnell and Toppin were outstanding once again, with McConnell registering 18 points and three steals while Toppin tallied 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, six boards, and three assists.

The Pacers also got a breakout game from Jackson. The third-year center was only in the playoff rotation for Games 5 and 6 against the Bucks, but was highly productive in his first game against New York, registering eight points on 4-of-6 shooting, five rebounds, and three blocks in 13 minutes off the bench.

Those bench contributions provided a nice compliment to the work of Turner (a team-high 23 points) and Siakam (19 points, six rebounds, and five assists). Even as the Knicks defense held Haliburton (six points and eight assists) in check, the Pacers were right there with a great shot to win on the road.

Of course, there's also plenty of room for improvement. After limiting the Knicks to 49 points in the first half, the Pacers surrendered 72 in the second half, including 39 in the fourth quarter.

Just like he was in the last round against Philadelphia, Brunson was brilliant in Game 1, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter to finish the night with 43. He is just the fourth player in NBA history to score 40+ points in four consecutive playoff games, joining Michael Jordan, Bernard King, and Jerry West. Brunson went 14-for-14 from the free throw line on Monday.

And rebounding became an issue in the second half for the Pacers. The Knicks led the NBA in offensive rebounding this season. Indiana limited New York to just two offensive boards in the first half, but the Knicks had six crucial offensive rebounds that they converted into 13 second-chance points over the final two quarters.

"This is New York’s pattern," Carlisle said. "As the game goes on, they get stronger with rebounding and they crash harder and harder. We talked about it coming in. It’s something that is a major factor. We had opportunities to come up with balls we didn't come up with. In a game when it’s a one-possession game, it makes a difference."

The Pacers also dropped Game 1 of their previous series with Milwaukee, but this result felt very different. Aside from Siakam, the Pacers appeared unprepared for the intensity of the playoffs in a 109-94 loss at the Bucks. This time around, they were ready for the challenge, they just didn't come away with a victory.

Turner said that in practice the day after Game 1 against the Bucks, "you could hear a pin drop," but the team was able to rally and win the next three games and ultimately take the series. He expects the mood to be less somber at Tuesday's practice now that the Pacers have the confidence that they both can rally from dropping Game 1 and also that they were right there with the Knicks on their home court.

McConnell echoed that sentiment, noting the valuable experience his teammates gained from Game 1.

"Playing in an arena like this and having it come down to the last couple possessions on the road in the playoffs, what more can you ask for?" McConnell said. "The ball just didn’t bounce our way. We’ve just got to adjust and fix some things."