New York Knicks‘ swingman Evan Fournier did not have his usual lift in his shots. Fournier scored seven points for the second straight game while shooting below 40 percent. Worse, he couldn’t stay in front of Indiana Pacers’ rookie guard Chris Duarte.
Duarte punished Fournier and the Knicks with a game-high 23 points on 9 of 11 shooting. The Knicks tumbled to a 122-102 loss Wednesday night in Indianapolis that quickly eroded their feel-good win in San Antonio the night before.
It turned out it wasn’t just the grueling travel and the short turnaround time bothering Fournier. He was under the weather.
“I thought I was doing better, to be honest for those two games,” Fournier said. “I won’t say the name of the restaurant but I had a terrible steak in San Antonio. I’ve been fighting like I had food poisoning stuff. I can’t move.”
Fournier actually enjoyed his steak. His ordeal started the following day. He tried to play through it but shot only 3 of 8, including an atrocious 1 of 6 from downtown against the Spurs. Good thing RJ Barrett was red-hot. The Knicks won, 121-109, to cover up Fournier’s stinker.
Against Duarte and the Pacers, Fournier felt better. But his performance got worse. He shot 2 for 6 from the field and committed four fouls, a clear sign that he was defending with his hands and not with his feet.
Fournier revealed he couldn’t eat well after his ‘big mis-steak’ in San Antonio.
“I have to get it right [Thursday]. I have a day off [Thursday] to feel better. To be honest, I thought I was playing better and better. You just have to be better physically,” Fournier said. “It’s a shame because the steak was actually very good.”
Fournier’s poor showing on both ends of the floor epitomized the Knicks’ lackluster play.
New York opened the game with a 4-0 lead. But Indiana’s embattled team fought back. Perhaps getting clarity from the management following a meeting centered on the group’s reported shakeup, the Pacers responded with inspired basketball. They staged a 12-0 run and never looked back.
Duarte, who entered the game with a 13.1-point average, scored 14 in the opening quarter. Reported trade chips Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis combined for 10 points. The Pacers led by seven after the first 12 minutes before it swelled to as large as 27 points in the second half.
“I don’t think anybody played good defense tonight. So I think we’re all in the same bag. The execution was just not good enough,” Fournier said.
All nine Knicks players in the rotation had negative plus-minus. Only the third-stringers, sent in during garbage time, yielded positive plus-minus. Fournier sat out the entire fourth quarter for the 12th time under Tom Thibodeau, the most in a single season over his entire career.
“Sometimes if you give in to whatever is ailing you or whatever it might be, in this league, you can find an excuse every night if you want to,” Thibodeau said.
The 29-year old Frenchman pointed to their individual preparation and approach to the game as the key to turning things around. It didn’t help that they were playing on the second night of back-to-back schedule with little turnaround time from Wednesday’s night game in San Antonio.
“It kind of throws you off your routine but we’ve all been there,” Fournier said. “So how do you prepare for a game like that? We knew coming in it was going to be physical because we’ve played them three times already including in the preseason. You have to get ready for that type of game regardless of circumstances. We didn’t do that.”
It has been the Knicks’ conundrum after a rousing 5-1 start to the season. They’ve become consistently inconsistent since then. They’ve never had a win streak since October.
Fournier acknowledged that the team is well aware of their biggest problem.
“We all know what we have to do and yet we keep on being inconsistent. I don’t know. I wish I had the answer,” Fournier said.Â “The biggest area where we have to get better is execution.”
“You can run a simple play but if you have good timing, if you have good screens, you have good spacing, it changes everything compared to when you’re being a little casual, not executing with full speed and you just wait for the last five seconds of the possession to attack. It’s exactly the same way defensively. When you get into the ball, you get more physical, drive your guy out of the paint, it makes a huge difference.”
But the lack of practice time because of the grueling and cramped schedule has been holding them back from ramping up building early-season chemistry. The Knicks came to Wednesday’s game mentally prepared. But physically, they were not.
“The game plan was pretty simple. We know that they have guys that love to reject the pick and roll. And we can’t let that keep from happening. We know they were gonna push the ball early because of how they play. And we didn’t run back in transition and rebounds,” Fournier said.
The Pacers dictated the tempo from the get-go. They entered the game averaging 12.7 fastbreak points (11th in the NBA). They came away with 26 points in transition, 10 in the opening quarter.
The Knicks froze on defense.
The Pacers crashed the boards (+6 in rebounds) and attacked the rim (+16 points in the paint). They averaged 47.8 points inside the paint (8th in the NBA) in their first 26 games. They had 60 against the Knicks.
The absence of Nerlens Noel, who was a late scratch with a sore lower back, also messed up Knicks rotation. Taj Gibson tried to fill his spot in the starting unit, but Turner abused him. The taller and heftier Indiana center had 22 points on 8 of 13 shooting. Gibson was scoreless in 18 minutes. Mitchell Robinson, who was fabulous in San Antonio, picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter. He never had the same impact after that.
“They have some weapons — they have guys that can score,” Fournier said of the Pacers. “They have bigs that can stretch the floor. To be honest, they just outplayed us physically. They were more physical and we’re more into the game.”
Sabonis (21 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 0 turnovers) outdueled Julius Randle (18 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 5 turnovers) in the battle of All-Star forwards.
Thibodeau refused to pin the blame on either Fournier or Randle alone.
“It’s not one particular guy. Everyone has to bring energy. You can’t like shortcut anything,” Thibodeau said. “Your offense is timing and spacing. Your defense is your commitment to each other. You’re not going to feel your best every night in this league. That’s part of it. That’s why conditioning is important.”
Now the Knicks are back to square one — a mediocre .500 team that has yet to find its solid footing more than a quarter into the season. A string of disappointments always follows one feel-good win.
“The games keep coming. We’ve been a very good road team all year. This is the challenge. We’ll go to Toronto next. Sometimes the schedule is in your favor. Sometimes it’s not. And when it’s not, you still gotta play and you gotta find a way to get it done,” Thibodeau said.
Despite the loss, the Knicks still have a winning record (7-5) on the road. They have a chance to close out their three-game road trip with a win on Friday against the Raptors, who fell to Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday night, 110-109.
But it’s easier said than done.
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