It felt like a loss.
The Knicks did not appear to have come to play from the first score, forcing a timeout on a furious Tom Thibodeau after quickly falling 8-0.
Taj Gibson, one of two healthy centers on the team, was injured after 4 minutes, and it didn’t look like the 16-17 Knicks were improving to .500 after 34 games for the first time since 2017.
The Pacers extended their lead to 16 in the second quarter and the Knicks looked dead in the water.
What followed was one of the most inspiring stretches of play this season. At 24-6, the Knicks repeatedly came out in transition as Quickley effortlessly drained one of his three 3s on the night, Randle made two powerful dunks, RJ dropped two of his four 3s from the game and Derrick Rose finished off. with a three in the first half to Carmelo against the Bobcats.
Things felt less secure in the second half.
Despite pitching immediately on a four-point play early in the fourth quarter, Immanuel Quickley was retired shortly thereafter even though he only played 13 minutes.
The Knicks sported a lackluster Rose-Burks-Bullock-Randle-Noel lineup as their lead dwindled and the game looked set to be a disappointing loss, with only the veterans gaining valuable experience at the deciding moment.
With 6:37 remaining in the fourth, Myles Turner made a three to put the Pacers up 94-91.
Fortunately, the youth movement returned to the 4:38 mark, when RJ Barrett signed up. While Barrett can generally be inconsistent, he has reliably played as an NBA candidate against the Pacers, averaging 25 points per game against them on the season. The last quarter stretch of his impressive game tonight was no exception.
In four straight possessions, the 20-year-old looked like a veteran when he hit a three, drove for a layup and 1, helped Randle on a three and drove for another layup.
RJ put Indiana in the torture chamber two plays in a row … could the second weirdly be one of my favorite units of his career? pic.twitter.com/lgcPe8P3NX
– Midfield Press (@THalfCourtPress) February 28, 2021
Barrett, who finished with 24 points on 8-17 shooting from the field and 4-6 from behind the arc, helped the Knicks build a 104-98 lead with 2 minutes to go.
The momentum was short lived, as TJ McConnell quickly beat Derrick Rose on the court for a layup and hit Edmond Sumner for a transition of three on the next two possessions.
Then the Knicks buckled up defense, making two decisive saves and forcing the Pacers to play foul play. Julius Randle was showered with chants from MVP as he put the Knicks up 108-103 with 29.7 seconds left.
In what is becoming a trend with Randle, he turned what appeared to be a poor performance into a tremendous one, with a staggering 28 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals.
The game seemed to be back in the hands of the Knicks, but things are never that simple with this franchise.
Sabonis took advantage of a three to get them closer to two with 25 seconds to go and RJ’s Indiana magic faded at the worst possible moment as he missed two failed key free throws that would have frozen the game.
The positive vibes were restored when Frank Ntiliikina registered for defensive purposes in Indiana’s attempt to tie the game with 15 seconds remaining.
Despite finishing with just 5 points in 10 minutes, Ntilikina made one of the most important plays of the game, throwing a steal and draining two free throws with 2.9 seconds left to put the game out of reach.
As P & T’er Walt Clyde Phraser noted, the game was sealed with a French kiss.
It was an excellent game in all aspects, despite the bad start. Julius Randle edged out fellow All-Star Domantas Sabonis, Nerlens Noel played stifling defense in his 41 minutes of play and Derrick Rose provided a consistent offensive presence with 17 points and 11 assists.
Most exciting is that the Knicks have an always elusive .500 record after 34 games and are tied for fourth in the very strange Eastern Conference.
The biggest concern with tonight’s game is the Knicks playing again tomorrow night in Detroit.
With Rose, Randle, Noel and Rose playing over 38 minutes tonight, it will be key to manage their playing time tomorrow night so as not to extend them too much, especially Rose. Rose hadn’t played that many minutes since the 2019 season, and in the six games he played more than 38 minutes, he typically had to sit down with injury just a game or two later each time.
But with Quickley, Ntilikina, Obi Toppin and Kevin Knox combining for just 31 minutes tonight, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find some fresh and energetic legs, especially with the impressive recent top-three play.