INDIANAPOLIS — Facing a flailing team in danger of being dismantled, Julius Randle and the Knicks once again reverted to look like the ones in need of a shake-up.
With several starters reportedly headed for the trading block, the Pacers poured in 70 points in the first half and barely looked back after intermission to send the Knicks to a humbling 122-102 thumping Wednesday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
“Just having the necessary energy at the start of the game … that’s probably the biggest thing. Just our defense,” a subdued Tom Thibodeau said afterward. “They’re a good team. I thought we scored, but we didn’t guard.
“So it just takes one guy and we knew it would be a challenge because of where we were in our schedule. But we’ve got to meet that challenge. We have to find a way to get it done.”
Indiana (11-16) received 23 points from rookie Chris Duarte and balanced scoring from potential trade chips Myles Turner (22 points), Domantas Sabonis (21), Malcolm Brogdon (16) and Caris LeVert (15).
“They just got whatever they wanted, transition, downhill, second chances. … It’s frustrating but we just got to keep moving forward,” Randle said. “Just our focus, back-to-back, whatever it was, [we’ve] just got to be mentally tough.”
The Knicks (12-13) had arrived in Indy a .500 team following their first win in four games the previous night in San Antonio, behind 32 points from previously slumping RJ Barrett and an encouraging performance by Randle (one turnover) that earned him effusive praise from Thibodeau.
Barrett also led the Knicks against the Pacers with 19 points but was a minus-25, while Randle finished with 18 points and eight rebounds but missed 12 of 18 field-goal attempts and committed five turnovers against two assists in a sloppy (minus-22) performance.
Randle, the 2021 first-time All-Star, had appeared to start making good on his vow “to be better” following the Knicks’ third straight loss Saturday against the Nuggets. Despite a slow offensive start Tuesday night against the Spurs, he finished the skid-busting win with a customary smorgasbord across the stat sheet with 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
Thibodeau called Randle’s overall play that night “terrific,” especially noting that the ball-handling forward had just one turnover for a second straight game after he’d matched his season-high with seven in another disappointing loss at the Garden last week to the Bulls.
But Randle coughed up the ball three times in Wednesday’s first half, and he also was whistled for a technical foul in the second quarter.
Signed to a $106 million contract extension in the offseason, Randle’s overall numbers are down across the board this season, a key factor during the team’s middling start. His scoring average has dipped from a career-best 24.1 points per game to 19.8, with his rebounds (10.2 to 9.8) and assists (6.0 to 5.2) also down. His shooting numbers also have declined — from 41.1 percent to 33.3 percent from long distance and from 45.6 percent to 43.0 percent overall.
Obi Toppin added 13 points on a series of dunks for the Knicks, including shuffling the ball between his legs and forcefully slamming it through the hoop early in the second quarter, a play that quickly spread virally across various social media platforms. The highlight-reel play drew the Knicks within five points, but LeVert and Sabonis combined for the next eight points for a 50-37 Indiana lead.
The cushion was extended to as many as 17 later in the quarter, before Randle netted eight of the Knicks’ final 10 points of the half for a 70-57 game at intermission. But the Pacers recorded the first 10 points of the third quarter and extended their lead to 23 before carrying a 96-76 advantage into the fourth.
“You’ve got to have the resiliency, the mental toughness to get through adversity. That’s what we have to continue to work on,” Thibodeau said.
“Our defense, I don’t think anybody played good defense,” added Evan Fournier, who scored seven points in 22 minutes before sitting out the entire fourth quarter. ”We’re all in the same bag, our execution was just not good enough.”