Myles Turner, Pacers show Knicks what they are missing

Alder Almo

After the New York Knicks lost to the Toronto Raptors, coach Tom Thibodeau talked about losing to a team playing with an edge.

Earlier, they responded to an unexpected loss to a rebuilding Orlando Magic team by playing with an edge against a hobbling Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers. He was expecting the same when they traveled to Indiana. But to his surprise, it was Myles Turner and the Indiana Pacers who showed up with an edge on Wednesday night at Gainbridge Field House.

Turner repeatedly hurt the Knicks inside and out as the Pacers buried them early in a 111-98 road loss for their first losing streak of the young season. It was another painful reminder of what the Knicks are missing.

The 5-1 start somehow swept the Knicks’ inconsistency and defensive deficiency under the rug. In Tom Thibodeau’s oft-repeated refrain, “When you feel good about yourself and let your guard down that’s when you get knocked down.”

The trade off between a supercharged offense and last season’s stout defense is rearing its ugly head.

The Knicks team that the fans fell in love with last season played with an edge and climbed their way up to the standings with a blue-collar defense anchored by a strong rim protection, perimeter closeouts and selectively allowing outside shots from weak outside shooters.

Turner fits the profile of a weak outside shooter. In three games against the Knicks last season, Turner managed to only hit 4 of 20 three-pointers. Entering Wednesday’s matchup, Turner was just 32-percent outside shooter, hitting 11 of 34 threes in the Pacers’ first eight games.

But against the Knicks, Turner turned the corner.

In what became a familiar sight to Julius Randle, Turner’s confidence notched a level higher every time the Pacers big man hit a three-pointer.

“We missed some shots. Myles got hot early. You know with him [when] he gets [his] confidence early, he’s good and he’s gonna be able to hit shots for the rest of the game,” Randle said.

Randle knows it too well having worked with Turner under the same trainer in their home state in Texas last summer.

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Tyler Relph, Randle’s long-time trainer who was responsible in helping him grew into a 41-percent three-point shooter last season, is also doing the same to Turner to expand his game and become a modern big man. It’s a development that could push the Knicks to try harder in teaming him up with Randle.

Turner’s summer work with Relph was on full display against the Knicks. Turner connected on 7 of 10 threes that opened up the driving lanes for the Pacers guards and wings. He drained two triples and made a putback in the Pacers’ 11-0 start that floored the Knicks.

Indiana shot 16 of 41 from the outside and 26 of 50 inside the arc.

Turner’s backup Goga Bitadze added two threes as they dragged Mitchell Robinson and the returning Nerlens Noel out of the paint on defense. The Knicks’ woes were exacerbated by Indiana’s 18 transition points.

The Knicks know where teams are hurting them. Their transition defense is all about effort. They talked about it openly during Tuesday’s film session.

But it’s easier said than done.

The Knicks never had a chance against the Pacers whose starting unit is long, big, mobile and versatile. They came as close as three points twice later in the game but Turner and the Pacers always punched back harder. New York was a step slower on defense. And their newfound weapon — the three-point shot — betrayed them on this night. They woefully shot a conference-low 5 for 24 from deep.

If not for RJ Barrett’s 12-point third quarter explosion in another strong offensive showing, it could have been worse for the Knicks. Though Barrett had his worst performance over his last four games. He needed 20 shots to get to 23 points.

Randle finished with a monster double-double of 18 points and 14 rebounds but was only 6 for 16 from the floor. Evan Fournier only hit 1 of 5 threes and Kemba Walker had his worst shooting night, going 0 for 5 from deep and 2-for-11 overall for four points.

“My thing is I don’t like to pin the blame on any one player,” Thibodeau responded when asked about Walker’s discouraring stats line. “As a group, we didn’t play well. We’re all part of it— coaches, players. And [struggle] is a part of the season. How do we navigate it?”

Six Indiana players finished in double figures led by Turner’s 25 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. Malcolm Brogdon was solid in his return from sickbay as he thoroughly outplayed Walker. Brogdon produced 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

“The East is loaded. So every night you got to bring it. And an important part of winning is playing with an edge,” Thibodeau said.

The Knicks simply did not have it in the past two games. They lost to two teams who were beset with COVID-19-related issues and injuries last year. Even in their wins save for their off-the-charts shooting in Orlando, there were signs of cracks in their defense as they could not hold on to  double-digit leads.

With the Raptors now back in Toronto after an uninspiring wandering in Tampa Bay, they are off to an impressive start. Their current five-game winning streak is something special as they played with their star Pascal Siakam on the sideline and rookie stud Scottie Barnes joining him in the last two games. The Pacers are starting to round off the edges as they get healthier under a chammpionship-level coach Rick Carlisle.

These two teams are part of the second tier where the Knicks would be competing for a spot in the playoffs and avoid the play-in tournament. Miami Heat’s 6-1 start may have catapulted them to the first tier along with the Sixers, Brooklyn Nets and defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, who are on deck for the Knicks on Friday night.

The Knicks may have reloaded with better talent but it will not matter if they don’t get their acts together on the other side of the ball. Shooting will come and go. But as the cliche goes, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. The Knicks need to return to outworking and outhustling everybody.

“We got to pick ourselves up and have a determination about it. I always say, you have to be mentally tough when you’re facing adversity, and that’s where we are right now,” Thibodeau said.

They are in the same exact spot (5-3) through the first eights games as last season. What followed next was a five-game losing streak.

We’ll see what this new iteration of Knicks are made of after next week.

It only gets tougher from here as their next five games include the Bucks on Friday, the rejuvenated Cleveland Cavaliers and the Sixers on a back-to-back home-and-away schedule on Sunday and Monday. A rematch with the Bucks and a faceoff against the high-flying Charlotte Hornets complete a trechearous next week for the Knicks.

It’s still early in the season. But adversities like this is something Thibodeau would want to have now rather than later when the stakes are higher.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo