Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks drives against...

Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks drives against Aaron Nesmith #23 of the Indiana Pacers during the first half at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024 in New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac


If you just peruse the stats and listen to some of the predictions, you might think the Indiana Pacers will arrive in New York for Monday’s Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series and be greeted by the Knicks in full uniform waiting in an alley outside of Madison Square Garden with bats and chains.

In actuality, maybe in a show of big-city hospitality, they will wait until the game begins to break out the bats and chains.

At one time, it might have gone that way in this rivalry, with John Starks head-butting Reggie Miller, Miller flashing the choke sign and Charles Oakley wrestling with Antonio Davis. But now the Pacers don’t play in the mud. They are among the fastest teams in the NBA in pace this season and are second in offensive rating. With Tyrese Haliburton orchestrating the attack, he and his high-flying teammates rush downcourt on fast breaks and pull up for three-point field goals from all angles.

The Knicks, on the other hand, ranked last in the NBA in pace this season, and in the first round of the playoffs, they basically engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Philadelphia 76ers in the slowest-paced series of the first round.

But the simplistic view might not be the right one, because while Indiana still may want to run, there are two alternative realities to deal with in the series.

First, as evidenced by the Pacers’ first-round battle with Milwaukee, the playoffs are a different animal. Their pace dropped from 102.16 in the regular season to 92.89 in their six-game win over the Bucks. And while they remained at the bottom, the Knicks look to run when they can, too. They were seventh in offensive rating in the regular season and sixth in the postseason.

“It’s how you would define pace,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I think we’re fifth in scoring. I think we’re probably second in fast-break points. Then when you look at total shot attempts, we’re always at the top. So however you get there.

“I told you, you can make stats say whatever you want, but the most important one is the net rating. And so that’s what we look at. You wanna be strong on offense and defense. I think we were fourth and fifth, or fifth in offensive rating. We’ll be challenged again. Our defense has to be great.”

It likely will be. The reality of the playoffs is that it isn’t the same as a fast-paced team catching a team in January on the second night of a back-to-back, shocking them with the different style. In the playoffs, every tendency is studied meticulously. Every play is prepped for in film study and practices. And seeing each other at least four times and maybe seven, there is no surprise to seeing the speed of a player or a team.

“You’re always adjusting,” Jalen Brunson said. “You can’t, I guess, force a team to play your style. It depends on game by game, what’s going on. Obviously, we want to play Knicks basketball, they’re going to try to play Pacers basketball. It’s going to be a grind. It’s going to be a battle. After the first game, we’re going to have to adjust whether we win or lose. Adjusting is how you win these types of things. “

“They get the ball out quick, throw it ahead,” OG Anunoby said. “They get up a lot of threes. They just play really fast, probably the highest pace in the league, the way they play. So it’ll be challenging for us to get back on defense. It’s an emphasis in film. Coach does a good job preparing us for that and we know coming into it to be ready for that.

“Definitely from game one to the next game to the next, the game changes. You learn more about an opponent each game and you’re more prepared, of course, as well. The playoffs is just naturally slower tempo.”

Anunoby’s presence will play a large part in that. He was not with the Knicks for any of the three regular-season meetings with the Pacers and is the Knicks’ best and most versatile defender. Anunoby, Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo give the Knicks the ability to switch liberally.

Anunoby has been able to share some defensive tips for his team concerning his former teammate in Toronto, Pascal Siakam, but he might not draw that assignment himself. In his one meeting against Indiana while still with Toronto, he took on the assignment of defending Haliburton.

“Just to try to make him uncomfortable,” Anunoby said. “He’s a great player. He can shoot from really far. So just try to pick him up early and dictate which direction he goes. Don’t let him choose which direction he goes — me force him away and then go from there.”

“The strengths of their team, that’s not gonna change,” Thibodeau said. “They’re an uptempo team. I think they average 113 in the playoffs. So we know that we gotta protect our basket. They’ve got good shooting, point guards. They’ve got Siakam. They’ve got [Myles] Turner. So they got a lot of weapons. A lot of pick-and-rolls. You got multiple point guards on the floor at the same time, so a lot of slips, a lot of flares. But the main thing is the strengths of the players doesn’t change. You gotta know what they do and you gotta know them inside and out.”

The Knicks certainly will know that as they put Philadelphia behind them and get ready for this series. They won’t do it with bats and chains, but it might feel that way sometimes.


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