Home News The Jalen Brunson stopper? Pacers’ Aaron Nesmith keeps Knicks’ All-Star in check...

The Jalen Brunson stopper? Pacers’ Aaron Nesmith keeps Knicks’ All-Star in check in Game 3



INDIANAPOLIS — Why is Aaron Nesmith celebrating? The quarter isn’t over yet.

In fact, a live ball is still in play.

It’s the final possession of the opening period of Game 3 of the second-round playoff series between the Pacers and Knicks, and Nesmith, the newly-promoted defensive assignment hounding All-Star point guard Jalen Brunson, is staring-down the league’s leading playoff scorer with mere seconds left on the game clock.

Brunson attacks from the left side of the Pacers’ half-court logo. He drives towards the middle, then changes direction going behind the back. Nesmith is unmoved. He awaits Brunson, who is now attacking from a different angle.

Brunson tries to drive through Nesmith, but this is why Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle made the adjustment. Brunson had been successful trucking through the 6-3, 191-pound Andrew Nembhard, whose scrappy, valiant effort on defense still allowed 43 points from the star guard in Game 1, then 29 points on 61% shooting in Game 2.

Nesmith is 6-5, 215 pounds of muscle. On this possession, like many others in the Knicks’ 111-106 Game 3 loss to the Pacers, Nesmith had Brunson’s number.

“He knows how to use his body and he’s good at attacking angles,” Nesmith said. “It’s just tough. You have to be locked in at all times because he’s really deceptive coming off pick and rolls … you have to be on your toes.”

Brunson put his shoulder into Nesmith’s chest as he got past the three-point line towards the paint, but then he lost the ball, a successful defensive stand from the Pacers defensive stopper.

With 4.4 seconds left on the clock, Nesmith flexed both arms in the direction of Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks’ bench. Then he turned toward the baseline crowd and put both arms in the air to celebrate the stop.

“[Jalen is] playing at a phenomenal rhythm right now,” Nesmith said. “I’m just trying to do whatever I can to get him out of that rhythm and make it as hard as possible and make sure he takes as much time in the game to find that rhythm, and when he does, try to shut it off again.”

Nesmith’s celebration was a near blunder.

After all, T.J. McConnell recovered the ball, but then had it stripped by Donte DiVincenzo, all while Nesmith’s back was turned away from the play. Pacers backup center Isaiah Jackson saved the day, pasting DiVincenzo’s attempt at a buzzer-beating layup on the backboard as time expired.

Nesmith set the tone for a Pacers team that secured its first victory of the series, courtesy of an adjustment made in-between games.

Nembhard was equally glued to Brunson through the first two games of the series, but Brunson’s strength advantage gave him an edge.

“I think sometimes with good players like that, you need to switch it up and get him a different feel, a different type of defender on him,” Nembhard said after Game 3. “I think I did a solid job the first two games in contesting and being right there. He was making a lot of tough shots. I think Aaron did an amazing job tonight speeding him up at times, not fouling and just doing his job, being super competitive on that side of the floor. He’s a tough player. He’s gonna make shots. You’ve gotta move on when he does that.”

Brunson shot 6-of-18 on shots contested by Nesmith in Game 3, and four of his five turnovers on the night came on possessions with Nesmith either guarding the point of attack or rotating over to help on Brunson defensively.

“Yeah, he played really well. Played great defense. Just gotta give him a lot of credit,” Brunson said. “Just didn’t do the things that I normally know I can do, no matter who’s guarding me, but he did a really good job. Hats off to him, and I just gotta be better. I gotta make the correct adjustments and be ready for Sunday.”

And now the clock starts, not just for the Knicks, who — on a roster devoid of most of its scoring — must find a way to free its head of the snake from Nesmith’s grasp, but also for the Pacers, and specifically Carlisle, who must have another trick up his sleeve when Brunson and his cast ultimately solve the problems posed by the Pacers’ latest defensive adjustment.

Brunson, after all, shot 16-of-55 (29%) from the field for 46 combined points in the first two games of the Sixers series before finishing the first round making 59 of his final 120 shots and scoring 39 or more points in Games 3 through 6.

Against a pair of longer, athletic 6-8 wings in Kelly Oubre Jr. and Nic Batum who, like the Pacers, defended Brunson the full length of the floor, the Knicks decided more effective screening — both in the back court on the inbound pass and in the half-court offensive sets — was the key to freeing the star guard for better quality looks.

The same could be in store after Friday’s rocky shooting night. Josh Hart, for example, said the Knicks have to find ways to make Brunson’s life a bit easier.

“I think giving him a little rest, bringing the ball up or getting him open a little bit better so he can maneuver more in space,” Hart said at his locker after Friday’s loss. “I think that’s something we can do so he has not as much grind.”

“He did a good job,” Isaiah Hartenstein added on Nesmith. “At the end of the day, I have to get Jalen more open, easy looks.”

At least now, however, the Knicks know.

They know Nesmith is the Pacers’ ace in the hole, a card Carlisle played with his team staring-down an 0-3 playoff series deficit no team has ever overcome.

It would be one thing if the Pacers were able to secure a win in Game 3 with Nembhard guarding Brunson, then make the defensive adjustment with a win under their belt entering Game 4.

Nesmith was Indiana’s best shot, at least on an individual matchup level. Carlisle is banking on a Knicks adjustment for Game 4.

“We can’t give New York a recipe of the same thing over and over again. They’re gonna adjust,” he said after the win. “Brunson’s too great of a player. The idea was: change matchups, get a little more size. Aaron did as good a job as you can possibly do. It’s just: Brunson’s so good. He’s the best scorer in the playoffs I believe. We had good, timely help tonight, too, so that helped. Game 4 could look completely different.”

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