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3 Matchups That Define Knicks vs. Pacers

Jalen Brunson and Aaron Nesmith is a key matchup in the Knicks-Pacers series.

Older Knicks fans still remember Patrick Ewing‘s last-second miss that sent Indiana to the conference finals, and even more remember the 2000 ECF, where Reggie Miller caught fire down the stretch, scoring 17 points to dispatch the Knicks and mark Indiana’s first-ever appearance in the NBA finals. Revitalized franchises led by a star point guard, only to find the other standing on the opposite side of the arena. 11 years later, they meet again.

Much like the past series, so many things can change with this win. For the Knicks, it will mark their first-ever conference finals appearance in almost 25 years. For the Pacers, it marks a return to their constant presence in the postseason (16 out of 24 times this century).

So, what are the key matchups that will define this series?

3 Matchups That Define Knicks vs. Pacers

OG Anunoby vs. Pascal Siakam

Teammates turned enemies. After playing together for the better part of eight years & winning a ring in 2019 OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam will face off against each other for the first time ever. Siakam had the highest effective field-goal % of his career in the 20+ games he played with the Pacers and helped lead the Pacers to become the second-best offense in the league. His presence helped turn their abysmal rebounding numbers into below-average.

However, the presence of Anunoby provides the Knicks with one of the best counters to Siakam. Anunoby had a defensive +/- of 3.1, 6th in the league. In the first round, the Sixers shot 37% in the paint (excluding the restricted area) when OG was the primary defender. He spent a lot of time shutting down Tobias Harris and occasionally switched on to Tyrese Maxey near the rim. Anunoby’s wingspan and versatility mean that he can defend almost all positions. Siakam did most of his damage around the rim against the Bucks (80% within five feet), but that will not be replicable. Anunoby allowed the 76ers to convert just 54% of their attempts within the same range.

While Anunoby is not a great offensive player, Siakam has been a below-average defender for his career. He allowed the Bucks without Giannis Antetokounmpo to shoot 60% from within the arc. Both coaches must make multiple adjustments if they wish to move forward, and Anunoby guarding Siakam will be a key part of the Knicks’ game plan.

 

Jalen Brunson vs. Aaron Nesmith

For the Pacers to have any shot of winning this series, they have to limit Jalen Brunson. Likewise, for the Knicks to win this series, Brunson has to continue being the one-man offense he has been for many parts of this season. In the series against the Sixers, Brunson had the ball in his hands for an average of 11.1 minutes. The next closest player? Luka Doncic with 9.3 minutes. The next closest Knick? Josh Hart with 3.8 minutes. Brunson did more on offense than any player in the league in the first round. After struggling in Games 1 and 2, Brunson scored 40.7% of the Knicks’ points, the highest in the league.

Aaron Nesmith is supposed to be the primary defender on Brunson for this series, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out. Nesmith does have the size advantage over Brunson and allowed the Bucks to shoot 44% on mid-range attempts as the primary defender. But, Nesmith guarded Khris Middleton for most of the series. Middleton does not have the footwork or the speed that Brunson has. This will be the matchup that defines the series. Brunson willed the Knicks past the Sixers and can do so again if left unchecked.

Tyrese Haliburton vs. Josh Hart

Much of the flair and aura that surrounded Tyrese Haliburton cooled off as the season went on. Pre-All-Star break, Haliburton dazzled the NBA, averaging 22 points and 12 assists while shooting 40% from three. However, since the break, his performance has deteriorated; his averages dropped to 17.3 points and 9.6 assists alongside a drop in three-point shooting. Even in the playoffs, Haliburton has struggled to regain his pre-break form, facing a sub-par Milwaukee Bucks defense, missing key personnel like former Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokoumnpo. That doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous. In the 4 games they won, Haliburton averaged 10.5 assists, pushing the tempo with bounce passes and alley-oops around the court. He orchestrates the fast-paced style of the Pacers’ and Josh Hart will have a tough job this series.

However, because of Haliburton’s decline, the Knicks do not need to double-team him to win. Hart should be able to minimize the impact of Haliburton, in part because Haliburton is not shooting well. If the Pacers cannot move the ball as well as they want to, their speed is diminished. Hart’s rebounding will also be a key part of this series because the Pacers do not have the personnel to keep up. His ability to snag rebounds in traffic will play a huge role, and might well be the difference.

It’s time for the Knicks to take their place among the perennial contenders. Re-igniting this storied rivalry and beating the Pacers gets them one step closer to every NBA franchise’s goal.

Prediction: Knicks in 5/6.

 

 

 

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