The Knicks reconvened following the All-Star break with clear heads and rested bodies, albeit with largely the same basketball team that had lost more than twice as many games as it won during the first two-thirds of the season.
A late comeback bid fronted by recent first-round picks RJ Barrett and Frank Ntilikina fell short Friday night, as the final 27-game stretch of another wasted year began with a loss to a playoff-bound opponent, with the Knicks falling, 106-98, to Indiana at the Garden.
“Everybody needed the break,” Knicks interim coach Mike Miller said before the game. “It was healthy. It was at a good time for everybody, mentally, physically, to have a chance to get away a little bit. You come back, you’ve got to jump back into it. There’s no way to just kind of ease your way into it. We need to go at it full force. We need to be ready and start building.”
Two-time All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, making just his eighth appearance of the season after suffering a torn quad in Jan. 2019, scored eight points in 25 minutes for the Pacers (33-23). T.J. Warren led Indy with 27 points, while Domantas Sabonis finished with 24 points and 13 rebounds.
Bobby Portis scored 19 points off the bench, while Barrett — coming off his game-high 27 points in the Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend — netted 17 for the Knicks (17-39).
“I think it was great, I think on all sides,” Miller said before the game about the 19-year-old Barrett’s first taste of the league’s midseason showcase event. “It was great that he was able to go and do that. I think it came at a good time for him as he was getting healthy and feeling good, having a chance to play.
“I think it was, for the young guys like that, particularly RJ, as young as he is and as mature as he’s been, it helps him keep his career on the path, and as a player, where he wants it to go. So I thought it was really positive and I’m happy for him.”
Ntilikina had logged more than 14 minutes just twice in his previous nine appearances, but the disappointing 2017 lottery pick received another chance at extended playing time with Elfrid Payton sidelined by an ankle injury.
Ntilikina was moved back into the starting lineup, and the 21-year-old point guard scored 14 points (5-for-11) with two assists in 32 minutes. He is one of several young players the Knicks need to evaluate over their remaining slate to determine their place in the organization’s future.
The Knicks’ defense held the visitors to just 15 points on 6-for-23 shooting (26.1 percent) and led 20-15 through the first quarter. But Warren and former Knick Doug McDermott (14 points) scored seven points apiece in the second, with the Pacers improving to 13-for-20 from the floor in the session to carry a 51-44 lead into intermission.
A 3-pointer by another ex-Knick, Justin Holiday, and a free throw by Oladipo completed a 23-point Indiana surge to open the third quarter, extending their lead to a game-high 22 points.
The Knicks scratched back to trail 80-65 entering the final quarter, and Ntilikina’s 3-pointer drew them within a dozen points early in the fourth. McDermott completed a four-point play with 7:40 remaining to push the Indiana lead to 13 points, but Barrett’s two buckets sandwiched around Ntilikina’s corner three made it a six-point game with 6:49 to go.
Damyean Dotson’s 3-pointer with 23.6 seconds left cut the deficit to 98-94, but Malcolm Brogdon sank two free throws to essentially seal the Knicks’ third straight loss bridging the All-Star break.