Pacers bring energy from the start, pummel Knicks to tie series

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INDIANAPOLIS — Rick Carlisle has been incredibly consistent with one message over the last few weeks leading this young Indiana Pacers team through its first postseason together: Every game is different.

“Whatever happens, you gotta wipe it clean,” Carlisle said after Game 3. “And the next game is a completely new palate, and you’ve just gotta get ready to compete when that time comes.”

The Pacers did that Sunday in a 121-89 blowout victory against the New York Knicks to tie their series at 2-2. In Game 4, no one personified Carlisle’s message better than T.J. McConnell.

The Pacers’ backup point guard was spectacular in the first two games of the series. His work defensively on All-Star guard Jalen Brunson and energy offensively had the game’s national television broadcast clamoring for McConnell to close out Game 2 in New York. His success, however, did not carry over to Game 3 in Indianapolis. The Pacers pulled out a come-from-behind 111-106 victory on Friday, but McConnell scored only six points on 3-of-10 shooting and tallied just one assist.

He could have let that effort eat him up and take away his vigor, but he left Game 3 in the past and brought his trademark energy to Game 4 from the moment he took the floor with 6:34 remaining in the first quarter.

On his first defensive possession against Brunson, McConnell fought over the top of a screen and picked off a pocket pass to force the Knicks’ first turnover of the game, which freed up Tyrese Haliburton for his first dunk of the series.

On the next possession, McConnell pressured Brunson and sprinted for a late closeout. Brunson missed the shot, and the Pacers got out on the run, with Haliburton repaying the favor to McConnell with a no-look hockey assist for a reverse layup.

Two minutes later, McConnell answered a hustle play by Josh Hart with a bucket of his own through contact. After the whistle, McConnell screamed out to the sellout crowd at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, and Pacers fans erupted.

After the Pacers forced an eight-second violation as Knicks backup big man Jericho Sims got caught with the ball in his hands in the backcourt, McConnell drove to the rack and finished through contact at the rim again.

After three minutes, McConnell had produced more statistically than he had in the entirety of Game 3.

“There’s not many in the NBA better at doing what he does, and that’s bringing energy off the bench,” Haliburton said of McConnell, who finished Game 4 with 15 points and 10 assists. “When he checks in, that allows me to play off the ball a little bit more, and at times, he might look at me like, ‘Oh, you got it.’ But I want him to run, so I can kick it ahead, so he can get downhill. … His energy is just contagious, and everybody kind of flows off that.”

While Carlisle didn’t praise McConnell as effusively as his starting point guard (Haliburton finished with a team-high 20 points, six rebounds and five assists), the Pacers coach said McConnell embodied the energy Indiana needs on a nightly basis in the postseason.

“I’m not concerned about him,” Carlisle said of McConnell. “He’ll be ready every game. Our bench responded well tonight.”

But it wasn’t just McConnell and the bench that brought the requisite energy and focus to Game 4. The Pacers held the Knicks to just 14 points in the first quarter and led by 20 points after 12 minutes because the entire team was fully locked in to the game plan.

In Game 3, Donte DiVincenzo went 7 of 11 from the 3-point line and tallied a career-playoff-high 35 points for New York. In Game 4, the Pacers were much more focused on him and his activity, and DiVincenzo went just 1 of 6 from the field, including 1 of 4 from 3, in the first quarter.

Despite not appearing on the Knicks’ injury report, Brunson did not appear fully healthy. Even if he did, the Pacers were much more attentive to their positioning against him and held him to one point on 0-of-5 shooting in the first quarter.

In the NBA, though, huge leads can disappear just as quickly as teams build them, but the Pacers did not stop after a strong first quarter. They kept the pressure on the Knicks and built a 28-point halftime lead, upping that lead to 38 heading into the fourth.

“The mentality was to play like we were down 20,” Pacers center Myles Turner (13 points, five rebounds, three blocks) said. “I think that, in the NBA, it’s very easy for a 20-point lead to dissipate as quickly as it does, and we never wanted to take our foot off the gas because once we were able to get ourselves established offensively, we had to do the same thing defensively.”

Turner and Pascal Siakam, the lone NBA champion on the Pacers roster, were quick to remind reporters postgame that, even with a large margin of victory, it’s only one win in the Pacers’ quest to be the first team to four in this second-round series.

At this point, the Pacers have only done what they are supposed to do: protect their home court. Even with injuries piling up for the Knicks, it will only get tougher from here for the Pacers as they have to pull out at least one victory at Madison Square Garden to win this series and advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in a decade.

“New York is a team that has shown that it has an indomitable will to compete and rise above anything people say they can’t do,” Carlisle said. “We’ve seen it throughout the season. We’ve seen it throughout this series. We’re believers in that, so we’ve gotta focus on us.”

That means the Pacers will need to wipe the slate clean once again and prepare for a new challenge on Tuesday in New York City.

(Photo of T.J. McConnell: Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)

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