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Pacers earn their moment in the sun after blasting Knicks in historic Game 7

NEW YORK — As ever, Knicks Nation was cogent and discerning watching its team lose Game 7 at Madison Square Garden to the Indiana Pacers.

“(Bleeping) scrubs,” one well-reasoned fan said as he exited MSG in the closing minutes of the 130-108 loss.

The home fans were bitterly disappointed. No one on this island believed the Pacers could come in here and big boy the Knicks, depleted though they may have been, in a winner-take-all tilt for a conference finals spot, as long as Jalen Brunson was healthy and New York could keep grabbing fistfuls of offensive rebounds. ESPN certainly seemed clear in its coverage plan. But the Pacers bowed their necks to show what they’d learned and how they’d grown during the last few months. They woofed at the Knicks and their well-heeled fans on celebrity row. They noted how few national reporters had been around much this season. Their coach seemed to delight in pointing out the disrespect his team had endured.

And Tyrese Haliburton came to the postgame news conference wearing a Reggie Miller hoodie, with Reg in classic “Knicks choked” mode, a tribute to the franchise’s all-time greatest player and enfant terrible in Gotham.

“I just like to be comfortable on the plane,” Haliburton said, tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Even as they shattered the previous record for the highest field goal percentage by a team in a Game 7, shooting an NBA playoff record 67 percent for the game – 53 of 79!! – and made 13 of 24 3-pointers, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle came back, again and again, to the defense his team played when it mattered the most.

“They have flipped the script,” Carlisle said. “They won the series with grit and guts and physical play. Pressing 94 feet. And that’s how we beat Milwaukee (in the first round, too. You have to give these guys a lot of credit for, not a total change, but a very significant change in the attitude toward defense, the defiance about, the importance of defense, and what they did today. I don’t want to make things about shot making.”


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Indeed, the Pacers’ metamorphosis since the first month of the season, when Indy was cosmically bad at the defensive end, has been profound. It required the grunt work of getting connected and louder on defense. But it also required Indiana to get out of its comfort zone and put all its chips to the middle of the table, acquiring Pascal Siakam from Toronto in mid-January in a three-team deal that also included New Orleans, with no guarantee after these playoffs that the two-time All-Star and rising, unrestricted free agent will stay.

“My focus coming into the game was just settling everybody in,” Siakam told The Athletic. “I came in aggressive, just making sure everybody calmed down. Once everybody calmed down, (Haliburton) took over. And he can do that with the best (in) the game. And, obviously, the back and forth gets you going.”

Siakam made his first five shots from the floor en route to 20 points. Haliburton hunted 3s in the first quarter, including a dead sprint to the left wing for a 26-footer in transition, giving him 11 points in less than two minutes. Indiana scored 39 in the first quarter and led 70-55 at halftime. The Pacers’ offensive output was stunning in its completeness.

“It’s just the old-school way of thinking, that you can’t play this fast in the playoffs,” Haliburton said. “But I think, opportunistically, you can do it. If we can get stops, of course we can.”

But, Carlisle was right. Indiana may have had better defensive nights numerically against the Knicks in the series, but given the stakes of a Game 7 on the road, this was Indiana’s finest defensive hour. Before Brunson left the game in the second half after breaking his left hand, he was just 6 of 17 from the floor. T.J. McConnell, again, was disruptive off the bench. And after getting beaten decisively on the glass in the first two games of the series, Indy outrebounded New York in four of the last five games and won all four of those games.

(Speaking of which: Man, the NBA is so bad at rigging games! It had Boston-New York on a platter, chock-a-block full of potential sweet ratings gold, featuring the No. 1 and No. 8 TV markets. And it let the Pacers run roughshod over the Knicks! It didn’t foul out Haliburton or Siakam. And this continues a troubling trend. The league never gave us a LeBron-Kobe NBA Finals; it put the ratings-sapping Spurs in the finals six times, with San Antonio winning five titles between 1999 and 2014; it hasn’t gifted New York a championship in more than five decades! If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times — because so many of you spout off and yell “conspiracy” this time of year: If the NBA’s mission is fixing playoff games so that it gets the biggest superstars from the biggest markets every postseason, it truly, and uniformly, sucks at it. Get better writers, people. What’s Eric Bischoff doing these days?)

Indiana’s defensive metamorphosis began with its run to the In-Season Tournament final in December, as Haliburton’s star rose nationwide. But even then, Indy came crashing back to earth, getting smashed in Las Vegas in the IST final by the Lakers. The Pacers got L.A.’s best shot and learned what they were doing wasn’t good enough. The Lakers’ attention to detail defensively, how much they stayed locked into the scout on Indiana’s team, impressed Haliburton.

“I think the biggest thing was experience,” Pacers center Myles Turner said. “We had a lot of guys who hadn’t played high-level basketball or games that mattered. The In-Season Tournament, it was like a heightened sense of urgency in all those games. We know how we started the year defensively, but we all came together, and we told ourselves, if we could just go from 30 to average, we can be a hell of a team.”



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Carlisle blew up his starting lineup the day after Christmas, putting Andrew Nembhard, Aaron Nesmith and Jalen Smith in alongside Haliburton and Turner. That group had a net rating of  minus-4.6, with a defensive rating of 120.8. Not great by any stretch, but at least the defensive bleed wasn’t as profound as it had been for the first two months. Once Siakam came aboard, the Pacers’ D really took off; in 25 games of Haliburton-Nembhard-Nesmith-Siakam-Turner, Indiana’s defensive rating was 107.2, with a net rating of 6.4.

There was a lot of soul-searching, McConnell said.

“I think it was being masked by the hellacious offense that we were playing with, but it just wasn’t good enough,” McConnell said. “You don’t get to this point without turning things around defensively. Credit to the coaching staff and everyone for … just looking in the mirror at getting better at that end.”

Getting Siakam not only meant trading three first-round picks to Toronto — two this season, one in 2026 — but also moving veteran forward Bruce Brown, whom Indiana had signed last offseason to great fanfare after Brown had helped the Denver Nuggets win the title. Brown didn’t fit with Indy hand in glove, but he had a champion’s pedigree. So does Siakam, of course, having helped the Raptors get a ring in 2019. But Brown is under contract for next season. Siakam isn’t.

Siakam has been impressed by the Pacers’ way of doing things, beyond Haliburton’s rise (though that, too, matters). With president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard and general manager Chad Buchanan, Indy has veteran front-office stability and a definite vision for how to build around Haliburton. In Carlisle, the Pacers have one of the game’s great tacticians, who always seems to get the absolute most out of his roster.

“After the In-Season Tournament, we just made a decision as a staff that we needed to be better,” Carlisle said. “… I just told our guys, we are going to make a stand, and we’re going to get better. We were on a historic pace offensively, but to get where we are at this moment and where we want to get in this next round and in the future, what we were doing offensively was not sustainable. It just simply was not. Not if you can’t consistently guard and rebound.”

The task of beating top-seeded and well-rested Boston, starting Tuesday at TD Garden, is Indiana’s biggest challenge to date. The Celtics may be without center Kristaps Porziņģis for the start of the series, but they’re otherwise healthy. They’ve been the best team in the league all season. They’ve had a relatively easy path to the conference finals.

Yet here come the Pacers, playing with house money, still far from dominating the sports headlines in town. Next Sunday will be the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500, and there is a rookie guard on the WNBA’s Indiana Fever who’s, apparently, drawn some attention.

The Pacers will continue flying under the radar, and loving it.

(Photo of Pascal Siakam: Elsa / Getty Images)

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