Pacers-Knicks Game Five: How Worried Should Knicks Fans Be?

13 May 2024
A FAQ for anyone who may be freaking out after those two brutal losses.

Knicks - Figure 1
Photo New York Magazine

By Will Leitch, a contributing editor covering sports and film at New York since 2008  and the author of six books, including the novels 'How Lucky' and 'The Time Has Come.'

Josh Hart and the injury-plagued Knicks can still bounce back, but they’ll need more of their trademark maximum effort to make that happen. Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Josh Hart and the injury-plagued Knicks can still bounce back, but they’ll need more of their trademark maximum effort to make that happen. Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Last week, I was in Los Angeles and stopped by 33 Taps in Silver Lake — the unofficial sports bar and gathering spot for New York Knicks fans in the City of Angels — to watch games one and two of the Knicks’ Eastern Conference Semifinals series against the Indiana Pacers. It was incredible in the way only watching your East Coast sports team play on the West Coast can be: The bar was packed with expats screaming for their team while complaining that “New York City has lost its edge” — the NYC expat anthem for decades running. The whole place exploded into chants of “Let’s Go, Knicks!” when the team won both games, and everybody was drinking beer at four in the afternoon. It was the highlight of my more than two decades of Knicks fandom, but the best part was: This was only the beginning. Now that the 76ers had been dispatched, the Pacers would provide little resistance. Bring on, Boston. Bing. Bong. It has all gone to crap since then. The Knicks lost a brutal game three on Friday night in Indianapolis — yet another riddled with late-game officiating controversies, though the real problem is that the Knicks lost the ability to hit shots in the fourth quarter — and got themselves downright obliterated in game four on Sunday in a contest they could easily have lost by 50 points. After two weeks of every Knicks fan running up to every other Knicks fan they saw in the streets and chest-bumping them — or at least doing a very complicated handshake — the whole fan base is downright shook. The Knicks didn’t come all this way just to blow a 2-0 series lead to Indiana, did they?

For any nervous Knicks fan wondering whether they should leap off the bandwagon — or worrying that they should never have hopped on in the first place — I thought I might FAQ through our collective anxiety. What’s going wrong? Is this over? Are they the same old Knicks again? Let’s talk through it.

Injuries. The Knicks went into the playoffs without All-Star forward Julius Randle, who separated his shoulder in a game on January 27 and never returned, and they have lost three other players since the playoffs began: reserve shooting specialist Bojan Bogdonovic, defensive-stalwart center Mitchell Robinson, and, most crucially, all-everything midseason-trade acquisition OG Anunoby, who pulled his hamstring in game two, which, up to that point, was the best he’d played as a Knick. Anunoby is the all-purpose defensive weapon who changed the season when they traded for him: The team is actually 26-5 with him in the lineup. But without him, the Knicks are scrambling to cover the offensive wizards that are the Pacers, not just because Anunoby is out but because they’re nearly out of bodies.

Knicks - Figure 2
Photo New York Magazine

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau famously plays a very short rotation, and now half of that rotation is gone. Not only are the Knicks being forced to play benchwarmers like Jericho Sims and Shake Milton, the players they have are starting to break down from overuse; even star Jalen Brunson is battling a foot issue right now. In retrospect, blowing game three looks particularly damaging. In game four, the Knicks looked so exhausted that the dam finally broke.

Robinson, Bogdonovic, and Randle are done for the year, and it’s looking shaky for Anunoby, who is highly unlikely to return for game five. The Knicks are notoriously unreliable in their injury reports, too. They claimed Randle had a chance to come back for weeks before finally admitting he was done for the year. Anunoby has always struggled to stay on the floor, and hamstrings are the exact sort of injury you can make worse by rushing back. It is possible — probably more possible than Knicks fans are admitting to themselves — that he doesn’t return this postseason at all.

The same way they’ve been winning all season: by playing with maximum effort, one their opponents simply cannot match. Josh Hart, who insanely played every minute of the first two games of this series before finally sitting down for, like, two minutes in game three, is the beating heart of this team. He’s a rebounding dynamo who consistently outworks and outhustles players half a foot taller than he is. Hart is the linchpin of the Villanova Three, college teammates who know one another so well it has become a legitimate advantage no one else has. Add him to Donte DiVincenzo, the team’s best shooter and an underrated defender, and Brunson, the all-NBA player who may represent the way Knicks fans see and value their franchise better than any Knick in decades, and you have three guys who will fight and claw to the very end. Anunoby is vital, but the reason everybody loves this Knicks team so much is the presence of those three guys. And they’re all still here.

Also, the Knicks still have home-court advantage in the series. Madison Square Garden has sold out every game for years despite having some of the worst teams in the NBA, so now that it has an excellent, extremely likable team, the place is losing its collective mind. The energy in that building on Tuesday, and a potential decisive game seven this coming Sunday, will be otherworldly. It’s the best advantage the Knicks have right now.

The contrast between these two teams is fascinating because the Pacers are the sort of fast-paced, run-and-gun team that’s fun to watch but has a porous defense that can often be exploited by efficient slower teams like the Knicks. That worked in the first two games, but as the Knicks ran out of players, the Pacers finally wore them down. It turns out the Knicks are not superhuman and do in fact get tired. But this is hardly some juggernaut Pacers team. It can be had. It’s telling that the Knicks, even in their current state, are favored to win on Tuesday, though the Pacers have oddly become the favorites to win the series. (This is your reminder that gambling lines are set by bettor psychology and algorithms, not by actual human beings playing the actual games.)

Probably. But it sure would be fun to watch this Knicks team, which has proven to be far mentally tougher than the fragile Celtics, give it a shot, wouldn’t it?

First off, you should never feel silly for getting excited about sports. Have you kept up on current events around the world? Did you see those swing-state polls? Sports are the only thing worth getting excited about! More to the point, if the Knicks can’t hold on to this series, they have nothing to be ashamed of. They really have been decimated by injuries to a near-unprecedented level; if they fall short, no one could blame them for running out of gas. This is also already the furthest the Knicks have made it in the playoffs — winning two games in the conference semis — since 2013, and if they win one more game in this series, it’ll be the furthest since 2000. This is rarefied air (at least for the Knicks and their fans).

But even better: This really is only the beginning. The Knicks are as well positioned to improve as any team remaining in the Eastern Conference. Their (at last!) smart and prudent front office has continued to compile assets, draft picks, and cap space, hoping to strike when the right superstar (Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, even the hated Joel Embiid) decides to demand a trade. The emergence of Brunson as a top-ten NBA player, at a discounted rate, has changed the landscape for the whole franchise. He’s the sort of superstar anyone would want to play alongside, on the grandest stage possible, for a fan base that will revere whoever delivers a championship until the end of time. It’s always possible that Jim Dolan will get bored of the Sphere and start meddling with the team again. But in lieu of that — the Knicks are, finally, the hot ticket they’ve been trying to be, and claiming to be, for years. These are the good times. Win or lose, enjoy them.

No, I’ll probably throw my television across the room.

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