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Knicks are short-handed and tired, but their best adjustment is to look like themselves

INDIANAPOLIS – Jalen Brunson isn’t here for the pity party.

The New York Knicks looked different on Sunday as they turned into a different creature, a mix of lethargy that doesn’t race for offensive rebounds, is late in losing balls and breaks away from streakers in transition.

The Indiana Pacers destroyed them 121-89 in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series, which now stands at 2-2. For the first time in a play-off run that takes years off the life expectancy of their fans and adds miles to their players’ odometers, a match was never close.

Indiana’s lead, which at one point stretched to 43, was so clearly insurmountable that New York head coach Tom Thibodeau, a man still holding on to the trauma of every lead lost or regained he has ever witnessed, canceled his starters removed in the third quarter.

“We can talk about fresher legs, and we can give ourselves all the pity we want. Yes, we are short-handed, but that doesn’t matter right now,” Brunson said. “We have what we have and we have to continue with it. So there is no question of: ‘We have few hands.’ There is no excuse. There is no excuse whatsoever. If we lose, we lose.”

They lost on Sunday. And they did it unusually.

Even when the Knicks aren’t playing well, they tend to argue. Until Game 4, they hadn’t lost more than 11 points since March 5.

But the Knicks – who are missing four rotation players in OG Anunoby, Bojan Bogdanović, Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle – are holding themselves together these days with an ACE bandage. And on Sunday that turned out to be the case for all four quarters.

The Pacers beat them on loose balls and topped the boards early. With every Knicks jumper that hit the hoop, Indiana skipped down the court and created layups or wide-open 3s. When the Pacers missed, they grabbed their rebounds. Just 10 minutes into the match they opened up a 34-11 lead.

One team in this game was the NBA’s best on the glass during the regular season. The other finished bottom of the league. Those tables were turned on Sunday when the Pacers outpaced the Knicks while blowing away New York at intermission.

Indiana scored 1.87 points per transition play, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s better efficiency than Stephen Curry, the most accurate free throw shooter of all time, going to the line for two shots. New York scored just 0.58 in transition.

“We have to take this L,” Brunson said. “There is no excuse.”

A typically cheerful group seemed exhausted.

As injuries have piled up, so has the burden on the Knicks’ top players. Because of the blowout, Josh Hart rested more minutes on Sunday than in his first nine playoff games combined. Leading up to Game 4, Donte DiVincenzo had played over 43 minutes in four consecutive games.

But DiVincenzo scored just seven points and hit just one 3-pointer during the blowout. Hart, who had two points and three rebounds, put the Game 4 loss “on my shoulders” because he is “someone who brings energy, brings hustle, the kind of things I didn’t do today.”

The discomfort is increasing, and not just among the players in the lineup.

Isaiah Hartenstein’s left shoulder banged against the court during a fall in the second quarter. He immediately grabbed it, winced in pain and said after the game that he thinks the injury is “probably a pinched nerve.” He added that the X-rays were negative. But Hartenstein kept playing and says he’ll be ready for Game 5.

Brunson is dealing with a foot injury suffered in Game 2. He insists he is doing “fine” and is out of injury even as he struggles to create separation from the Pacers defensemen, led by physical wing Aaron Nesmith. Brunson scored 18 points in Game 4 on 6-for-17 shooting, including an 0-for-5 showing from 3.

What’s even more concerning is that he fouled all eight of his jump shots. Six of those misses fell short; the couple he catapulted long were both two-pointers in the first quarter when his legs were fresher.

“It’s not an excuse at this point,” Hartenstein said. “I think everyone is going through something, I think you just have to find a way. That’s kind of what they’ve probably done a lot better than us the last two games.”

The Knicks limp back to New York for Game 5, but it’s not like the Pacers will wake up fresh on Monday morning. All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton struggled to walk down three steps after finishing his Game 3 press conference, leaning heavily on the right and left handrails as he staggered five feet to the ground.

He is dealing with lower back spasms, a sprained right ankle and a sacrum contusion, the Pacers said. But he finished Game 4 with 20 points, six rebounds and five assists in just 27 minutes.

Haliburton found a way to look like itself. The Knicks didn’t — and it wasn’t just because of the flattened energy. This team was also not fundamentally itself.

No play of the afternoon better embodied the Knicks’ discombobulation than an eight-second foul they committed in the first quarter, when they were already down 14 and starting to loosen the rope. Rarely used backup center Jericho Sims, who received the inbounds pass, tried to maneuver onto the court himself, almost traveled, picked up his dribble and turned it around moments later. He will be criticized for the play, but that moment was as much about who didn’t have the ball as it was about who did.

The Knicks had two point guards on the court at the time, Brunson and Miles “Deuce” McBride. Both were with Sims in the backcourt, but were not open. As soon as Hart relayed it to the Sims, they should have known to hurry. Sims is not a ball dealer. He doesn’t cover press.

He stood in place waiting for a guard to creep around him. No one came closer. By the time he started dribbling, McBride was out of the game, almost halfway across the field. Brunson trotted onto the court and didn’t look at his big man.

In the most exhausting moments, it’s not just the body that can go; The focus can also flutter.

“Do I feel it? Yes. But I think everyone does,” Hart said. “So at the end of the day it’s the playoffs. You have to want it yourself, your body wants it.”

The Knicks will spend the time before Game 5 looking for solutions.

Maybe they’ll try to get Brunson off the ball more, get him to run around screens and encourage Hart or DiVincenzo to initiate the offense. Or maybe they play around with the starters. McBride started the second half of Game 4 in place of Precious Achiuwa, spreading out the offense more. The Brunson-McBride-DiVincenzo-Hart-Hartenstein lineup is small, but it also dominated during the regular season, outscoring opponents by 33 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.

But the best adjustment the Knicks can make, the one that would trump any plan or adjustment, is to be more like themselves.

“We just have to get back to playing basketball,” Hartenstein said. “I think that’s the more physical team, doing the little things, diving with the ball and making those second attempts. I don’t think we’ve done that in the last two games.”

(Photo of Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson and Mamadi Diakite: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)