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Rivalry, standings, and a 'wannabe' All-Star: Why Pacers at Knicks isn't an ordinary January game
The Pacers elevated their play since losing a late lead to the Knicks on Dec. 18. They've won 8 of their last 10 games after dropping 8 of 11. And Wally Szczerbiak added fuel to the fire.
I don’t often take the time to write game previews. They’re usually stale and dated quickly in the regular season considering NBA teams play three or four games each week.
However, the Pacers’ next game feels different.
It is different. For several reasons.
First, the second half of the season begins Wednesday at The Mecca, Madison Square Garden in New York City. That, in itself, is special. It’s a dated venue but also one of the best experiences and atmospheres in the NBA.
Second, there’s the storied history between the two franchises.
Hicks vs. Knicks.
8 points in 8.9 seconds.
Reggie Miller. Spike Lee.
Larry Johnson’s four-point play.
The New York Knicks haven’t won a playoff series since 2013. (And the Pacers haven’t since 2014). Mike Woodson was the head coach then, and now he’s in Bloomington coaching his alma mater. Carmelo Anthony had a crucial shot rejected by Roy Hibbert and they’ve yet to recover.
There’s always some added juice when these two teams tangle.
Third, what it could mean at the end of the season.
At the season’s midpoint, the Pacers are 23-18 and sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks (22-19), who won the first of four meetings just over three weeks ago, are right below them in the Eastern Conference standings.
“We’re right with them in the standings,” Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton said after practice on Tuesday. “We’ve been neck-and-neck as the year has went on so this game has a little bit more emphasis to it, especially due to standings. At the end of the year, we could probably be right next to each other and that could determine who’s in the play-in (games) and who’s not if we both maintain what we’ve been doing this year.”
Kudos to the schedule makers because they have the Pacers facing the Knicks twice over their final three games, including the regular-season finale at MSG.
In their first meeting, the Pacers were up by three with 1:56 to play, then were outscored 9-0. It was their eighth loss in 11 games.
But since losing to the Knicks by three on Dec. 18, the Pacers have won eight of their past 10 games. And in those 10 games, eight were decided in the clutch.
The Pacers won seven of them — displaying toughness, unselfishness and growth.
And that leads us to the fourth and biggest reason why this ordinary game feels bigger.
Because it’s personal.
Wally Szczerbiak played in 651 games over 10 seasons (1999-2009) in the NBA. He’s part of the brotherhood. However, after the last meeting, he took an unprovoked cheap shot at Haliburton in his postgame commentary.
“Mr. Supposed Wannabe Fake All-Star with the big miss,” he began. “… He’s in his second year. He’s a very good player. He’s not going to make the All-Star team. A guy like Julius Randle or Jalen Brunson will make it over Tyrese Haliburton, and tonight we saw why.”
Szczerbiak had to be corrected that it’s Haliburton’s third season as a pro. But the whole thing was targeted, gross, and a lame attempt to elevate Knicks players while trashing a guy he doesn’t know.
(Note: Haliburton had not talked about potentially being an All-Star before this…)
If it was a debate show with a talking head filling time, that’s one thing. Szczerbiak played in the league and was a one-time All-Star (2002). He knows what that means and what it took for him to get there.
Haliburton responded by going for 33 points and a career-high 43 points in his next two games, respectively, leading the Pacers to road wins in Boston and Miami.
Szczerbiak never apologized on Twitter other than later writing in a quote-tweet: “Looks like an All-Star to me.”
A few days later, he said the following on what appears to be the pregame show:
“I want to apologize, personally, to Tyrese Haliburton, who is a wonderful young player. He’s definitely in the All-Star conversation, along with guys like Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. It’s going to be interesting to see who makes it and all those three players are wonderful players.”
I don’t know Szczerbiak, and I wish his Twitter DMs were open so I could message him for comment, but his apology did not come across as genuine. There was no need to even mention the Knicks players in the apology.
For accuracy sake, Haliburton had more fan votes (281,691) than Randle and Brunson combined after the first returns.
In the last 10 games, Haliburton has averaged 22.7 points and 9.2 assists, shot 44.6% from range — leading the Pacers to an 8-2 stretch primarily against playoff teams.
“All the trust in the world (in him),” said Myles Turner. “Tyrese has proven time and time again that he can really take over in times like that. He’s doing a phenomenal job for us.”
And he’s been a nominee for Eastern Conference Player of the Week for three straight weeks: Dec. 26, Jan. 2 and Jan. 9.
Haliburton is a cerebral player. He sees and absorbs everything — just watch him pass the ball. So on Tuesday, before they departed for New York City, I asked Haliburton whether Szczerbiak had reached out to him.
“I haven’t talked to him,” he replied.
Would you like to?
Added guard T.J. McConnell: “I won’t name any names, but there was some fuel to that fire that sparked our All-Star to come out and take us to the next level.”
The game tips off at 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday.