For 24 minutes the newest incarnation of the Knicks were enjoying their moment in the spotlight, with a new coach and an offense that suddenly scoring in bunches there was a reason for hope.
RJ Barrett hit all eight of his field-goal attempts in the first half, leading an unexpectedly potent attack. Rookie Immanuel Quickley came into the game off the bench and seemed to provide the same sort of lift he did in the preseason.
Unfortunately, the first lesson for the young team is that it is a 48-minute game. The shots stopped falling. Quickley was banged up late in the first half and was unable to return. And suddenly the defense sagged, shoulders followed and the Knicks were on their way to a disappointing opening night, falling 121-107 to the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"To win on the road you always talk about the defense, the rebounding and keeping your turnovers down," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "And so, the way we played offensively in the first half is the way we need to continue to play. I thought we played about 24 minutes of good basketball. And to win on the road you have to do a lot better than that. So we’ll learn from it, get better, make some corrections."
The turnaround came quick and drastically. Barrett scored 20 of his 26 points in the first half. But after the Knicks shot 24-for-41 and scored 66 points in the first half they were just 10-for-37 shooting in the second half and were outscored, 60-41.
The loss of Quickley, who collided with Indiana’s Myles Turner and suffered a hip pointer, certainly hurt as the rookie helped spur the team early. He scored just five points in 12 minutes with one assist, but his aggressiveness helped as the Knicks found little help at point guard in any other combination. Playing without a point guard at all, at times, the Knicks suddenly seemed stuck in the mud.
"I think they played harder in the second half," Barrett said. "I think we had a good first half overall and they came out even more aggressive in the second.
"I think they did something different defensively with all of our actions. They made really good adjustments at halftime. We’ve got to play basketball. We’ll know for the next game."
Barrett made his first shot of the second half, upping him to 9-for-9 but the Pacers loaded up on him and took the ball out of his hands. Obi Toppin in his pro debut was just 3-for-12 — all three of his baskets coming from beyond the arc. Turner blocked eight shots and Domantas Sabonis had 30 points and 13 rebounds.
"It was a learning experience," Toppin said. "All of us have to get better at what we’re doing on the court and trust each other and trust what the coach is telling us. We have a lot of games in front of us and a lot to learn."
Thibodeau, in his first game as coach, opted to return Elfrid Payton to the starting point guard spot alongside Reggie Bullock, Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson. The biggest change was pushing Robinson into the starting lineup over Nerlens Noel, who had started the first two preseason games before sitting out the final two games. But both were plagued by early foul trouble.
"We feel very strongly about that position," Thibodeau said. "Actually both guys had very good camps. Nerlens got nicked up a little bit so he sat out the last two. But we had very strong play from both guys. Mitch is really working hard in practice and growing. That’s a positive sign and he has to keep going. We have 10 guys. We understand how important the depth is and over the course of the season we’ll need all 17 guys, our 15 roster guys and the two two-ways. So everyone has to stay ready."