INDIANAPOLIS - There would have been no shame in losing a long, tough, close series against the Pacers, a team that earned its way to this point as much as the Knicks did.
But what happened to the Knicks here Tuesday night -- and for all but 1 1/2 quarters over the four games of these Eastern Conference semifinals -- has been an awful shame after what mostly was a feel-good season.
No, the series and season are not over yet, even with the Knicks needing to win three consecutive games after a dismal 93-82 loss to a younger, fresher, hungrier, more versatile opponent at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Any hope of a turnaround, though, must involve burning the video of the two games here and hoping a return to Madison Square Garden somehow turns back the clock to late March and April.
What we know is the Knicks of mid-May are a mess, with five losses in their past seven games belying what Carmelo Anthony said after Game 4: "I still do believe we are the better team. We're just not playing at that level right now."
What went wrong for the Knicks in Game 4? What didn't?
Let's start with J.R. Smith, who when these playoffs began was being hailed as NBA Sixth Man of the Year and for his newfound maturity off the court. But since he elbowed Jason Terry and was tossed out of Game 3 in the opening round against the Celtics, he has lost free-agent money roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product of some small Caribbean nations.
Tuesday night, he missed nine of his first 10 shots before rallying too late and finishing 7-for-22, totaling 19 points.
"I take the blame for this whole series," he said afterward. "I have not been playing myself. I haven't been playing my part. I've been letting my teammates down. I've been letting my coaches down. It doesn't feel good."
Noble, but overstated. Sure, Smith has been plenty bad, but he has too much company for it all to be his fault.
Anthony scored 24 points and shot 9-for-23 before fouling out, but the Pacers, led by Paul George, made him work for everything and for the second game in a row, he failed to make a field goal in the fourth quarter. Melo did not have much to say about his own struggles, but he spoke at length about the offense's problems in general, even throwing in a not-suitable-for-print adjective on live TV.
Mostly, he tried desperately to keep a positive attitude as doubts mounted everywhere around him.
"At this point, it's do or die," he said. "But there's no need for anybody to hang their heads at this point. We still have a game to play."
As for Smith, Anthony said: "I don't want him to stop shooting. I want him to be as aggressive as he can be out there and not worry about anything. Leave it all out there on the basketball court."
Does coach Mike Woodson sometimes wonder where the stellar outside shooting of the regular season has gone? "You wonder, but again, I can't lose hope," he said.
With Anthony and Smith still misfiring, there was little else for the Knicks to hang their hats on. Two of their five starters were scoreless, including Iman Shumpert, who shot 0-for-6 on a sore left knee.
"We got hammered on the boards again," the coach said.
The Knicks tried to rough up the Pacers, shoving them to the floor a half-dozen times. Didn't work.
Jason Kidd remained scoreless since . . . oh, who can remember anymore? Amar'e Stoudemire picked up four fouls in 11 minutes and scored four points.
Said Woodson: "We have to find some guys who can put the ball in the hole."
There is so much wrong with the Knicks now that fixing them isn't quite that simple. But it certainly would be a start.