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 from a 22-point hole — fronted by recent first-round picks RJ Barrett and Frank Ntilikina — fell short Friday night. 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.
Down the stretch, interim coach Mike Miller went with a group featuring Ntilikina and Barrett in the backcourt, with Damyean Dotson and Kevin Knox also receiving crunch-time minutes.
“I just think that’s what the coaches put out there tonight. I guess that’s what was working,” Barrett said. “I think it was a cool group. We play together every day, against each other as a team. We can play with any lineup.”
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 for the Knicks (17-39), while Barrett netted 17 following his game-high 27 points in the Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend.
“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.”
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 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.
“Really the goal for us is just to take it day by day, game after game and try to win each and every game,” Ntilikina said.
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 of 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 12 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.
Dotson’s 3-pointer with 23.6 seconds left cut the deficit to 98-94, but Malcolm Brogdon sank two free throws to seal the Knicks’ third straight loss bridging the All-Star break.
“They hustled more than us and made more hustle plays,” Barrett said. “We played good defense [in the fourth quarter], but they got the second-chance points.”