Victor Oladipo
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

The New York Knicks fall to the Indiana Pacers despite a furious fourth-quarter comeback fueled by Frank Ntilikina and friends.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NY—The “27-game season” started out the same way as the 82-game season—with a loss. The New York Knicks battled through much of the first half to keep pace with the Indiana Pacers. But a lackluster third quarter put the Knicks in too deep of a hole to climb out of in the fourth.

This is a familiar story for the Knicks and one fans have watched hundreds of times. That doesn’t make the 106-98 loss sting any less. Here are five observations from the failed comeback at Madison Square Garden.

Frank Ntilikina starting

For all the criticism that goes Frank Ntilikina‘s way (much of it justified), it’s almost impossible to knock his defensive effort. On the very first Indiana possession, the Frenchman was picking up Malcolm Brogdon 94 feet and doing everything in his power to make his life miserable.

Brogdon finished with 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting, but as he’s one to do, he impacted the game in other ways. He dished out six assists and scooped up eight rebounds. Nonetheless, Ntilikina’s length and defensive instincts made it hard for Brogdon to get clean looks at the basket.

Ntilikina, 21, started in place of the injured Elfrid Payton and for three quarters, he struggled to find any type of offense. But he has a knack for hitting big shots when the game tightens up.

Ntilikina, along with Bobby Portis, was a catalyst for the Knicks’ fourth-quarter comeback, one that would ultimately fall short. All in all, Friday was a positive night for Ntilikina. He finished with 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting.

The next step is to build on this little bit of momentum he’s riding.

Rust vs. Rest

The first game back from All-Star break is always a little wonky. The Knicks and Pacers struggled to find a rhythm early and thus, both teams spent the first half grinding out possessions.

There’s always the question of whether or not teams will come out rusty or rested after the mini-vacation. In this case, it was a little of both. The defensive intensity was high, but the shotmaking left something to be desired.

“I think we all felt a bit rusty,” Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis told reporters after the game. “First game after All-Star, the most important thing is to get the win. It wasn’t the prettiest, but glad we got the win.”

In fact, the Knicks hit their first three-pointer with 3.4 seconds in the first quarter and Indy didn’t break through from beyond the arc until T.J. Warren drilled a triple with 4:17 left in the second. In today’s NBA where chucking up three-pointers is commonplace, it’s noticeable when both teams are ice cold from deep.

However, the Pacers figured things out in the second half and the 22-point lead they built in the third quarter was too much for New York to overcome.

The T.J. Warren show

Victor Oladipo is no longer on a minutes restriction, but he wasn’t the one to carry the Indiana offense on Friday. T.J. Warren led all scorers with 27 points, including 16 in the second half. The wing is coming into his own this season and he was key down the stretch for the Pacers.

“We just have to calm down and understand what we are trying to do, make sure that everybody is on the same page,” Warren said. “We just can’t overreact in certain situations when they make a few shots down the stretch, we just have to calm down and play our game.”

The aforementioned Sabonis was a beast in the paint as well, tallying 24 points and 13 rebounds in the victorious effort. The Lithuanian stud always seems to bring his best to the Garden.

“I like New York. I have a lot of friends and family here,” Sabonis remarked in the locker room. “I don’t know if it’s special, but it’s obviously a special arena and it always gives you that extra motivation.”

Expect mo’ Moe Harkless

Moe Harkless is here to stay—at least for the rest of the season. The Queens native announced that he won’t be seeking a buyout, despite the fact that there are playoff teams who would love to add his defense.

As for the game, Harkless was one of the first guys off the bench for interim head coach Mike Miller and started the second half in place of Reggie Bullock. The spacing for that lineup was rough and Miller ended up going with a brand new group just a few minutes into the quarter. Harkless never went back into the game, only scoring three points in 17 minutes.

Regardless, Harkless appears to be a part of Miller’s plan for the final 26 games of the season.

Robinson foul trouble déjà vu

Time is a flat circle with Mitchell Robinson. The foul trouble continues to slow him down which is so frustrating because he is an absolute game-changer when he stays on the floor.

His first foul was called a charge on Myles Turner initially, but Pacers head coach Nate McMillan deftly used his challenge to overturn the call. A second quick one sent Robinson to the bench in the blink of an eye.

It’s easy to criticize Miller—and David Fizdale earlier in the season—for refusing to put Robinson in the starting lineup, but there’s a method to the madness. Bringing him off the bench is one way to guard against early foul trouble. It doesn’t always work, but there’s a valid reason for the move.

Two more quick ones early in the fourth quarter took him out of the game for good. Portis and Julius Randle finished the game while Robinson sunk into the bench with five fouls in just 17 minutes of action.

It’s no secret. Foul trouble is the biggest thing holding Robinson back from becoming a star.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.