INDIANAPOLIS — It was less than 12 hours since the games had ended in Brooklyn and Orlando while some of the Knicks were getting up some shots in a gym here, the results securing the No. 5 seed and locking the Knicks into a first-round playoff matchup starting in Cleveland against the Cavaliers in less than two weeks.
And while Tom Thibodeau has insisted that you play through the end of the season, the first signs that the Knicks could finally look ahead to that playoff series came when the morning shootaround was switched to an optional workout minutes before it was supposed to begin.
Shortly after that, Jalen Brunson was ruled out with what the team called right hand maintenance. Julius Randle was already back home still working his way through rehabilitation on his sprained left ankle. And RJ Barrett was ruled out before the game with the lingering effects of the illness that sidelined him Sunday. And the final three games on the schedule, meaningless in the standings, were no longer the priority.
So while it warmed Thibodeau’s heart to see the shorthanded squad beat the equally-shorthanded and lottery bound Pacers, 138-129, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse and see a trio of young players — Immanuel Quickley (39), Quentin Grimes (career-high 36) and Obi Toppin (32) — top 30 points, there was one eye already on the Cavs.
"Anytime someone’s out it’s an opportunity for someone else to step in," Thibodeau said. "All these guys have had really good moments throughout the year. The thing that I’m most proud of is the way that they improved throughout the year. To think about how we started, where we were to where we are today, it’s a tribute to them, to our players, for working together and not skipping over things. Put the work in each and every day."
The Knicks were lining up against the Pacers Tuesday, but with an eye already on the Cavs.
“I wish we didn’t have a long break,” Josh Hart said. “Feel like we’re going in the right direction. So your last three games you continue to build habits and continue to grow, continue to get better. Going into the playoffs that’s the goal, that’s what we wanted. We want to make sure we all are just locked in. I think that’s the biggest thing, not getting too far ahead of ourselves and staying in the moment.”
The priority for Thibodeau and the Knicks has been on the work directly in front of them, but now the focus turns to Game 1 against the Cavs.
With Indiana already eliminated and sitting most of their top players, the Knicks were thinking about Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell — who averaged 31.8 points per game in four meetings with the Knicks this season.
“When you dig into the numbers, that tells you that he’s had a monster season, to have as many 40-point games, but also, like, the impact on winning,” Thibodeau said. “He did the same thing in Utah, but I think each year he’s gotten better. I think the volume shooting and his shot profile has improved significantly over the last three years. High volume, which sets up his drive. Their backcourt, (Darius) Garland and he, is so dynamic but he could beat you off to dribble, he could beat you with his shot, he’s explosive. And then when you collapse, it opens up the second shot or it opens up the three. So it puts a lot of pressure on you.”
Quentin Grimes and Josh Hart have served as defensive stoppers this season against the best perimeter players, but Hart said that even if you play defense as well as you can there will be nights like the most recent meeting — when Mitchell scored 42 points (part of a run of four consecutive 40-plus outings).
“The challenge is to make him not score the [expletive] ball,” Hart said with a smile. “That’s the challenge . . . In the league you have guys that no matter what you do, no matter how good the defense is, they’re gonna make shots. That’s what happens, especially when you sign up to be guarding the best players. I don’t think QG got really discouraged over anything that he was making, or myself. Once you do that, you lost, you know what I mean? Sometimes you just gotta make it tough for them, and sometimes they’re gonna have games where they score 45 efficiently and games they’re gonna score 25 inefficiently You have to take the good with the bad, and that’s the biggest thing with us. We just gotta make it difficult for him.”
Notes & quotes: With Grimes, Quickley and Toppin topping 30 points in a game, it marked the first time the Knicks had done that since March 24, 1979 (Ray Williams, Earl Monroe and Toby Knight). This is the third time in franchise history this has happened. “I’m trying to think. What was going on in 1979? Was there even cable?” Quickley said. “That’s great stuff, I’m really happy, especially for those guys, because they work really hard. Especially Obi, good to see him get some success especially down the stretch . . . Mitchell Robinson had 14 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocked shots.