The Knicks should keep getting Tyrese Haliburton involved on defense as they look to close the Pacers out in Game 6.

Jalen Brunson walked the ball up the floor, surveying his options on offense. Deuce McBride was waiting in the wings with Tyrese Haliburton defending him. As Brunson sees this, he takes advantage.

He calls for a screen from McBride, forcing Haliburton to try and defend him alongside Aaron Nesmith. Out comes a double team, something Brunson had been faced with and prepared for, over and over again, during the regular season. It’s also something the Philadelphia 76ers never really had to show him as they had the size and length to disrupt him with just single coverage during their first-round showdown. 

This double team from Haliburton and Nesmith in the late second quarter was child’s play for Brunson. He tossed a behind-the-back pass to McBride who was now totally open at the top of the three-point line, and he splashed the long ball. 

In another play in the first quarter, McBride brought the ball up and called for a screen from Isaiah Hartenstein. He answered as McBride passed the ball off to Brunson to actually initiate their scoring with a double drag screen. Haliburton, who was guarding McBride on this sequence, gets completely lost in the sauce and never gets close to trying to switch onto Brunson, leaving him open to drive into the paint with the help defender, T.J. McConnell, on his heels. 

For some reason, and much to the benefit of Brunson and the New York Knicks, Haliburton kept showing help or fully committing to doubling him. This was seemingly opening up everything on offense for the star guard who finally has breathing room after a tough Sixers matchup in the first round. Instead of just being relentlessly hunted, he is now getting tossed a proverbial bone by being guarded by Nesmith, Haliburton and Andrew Nembhard at times. 

Haliburton had yet to be made this liability in the series to the extent that he was in Game 5 and it made a world of a difference for New York’s offense to force him to be involved defensively. While he can do wonders with the basketball as a passer and as a scorer, his defense is still not up to snuff despite being a taller guard. And the Knicks finally started to use that to their advantage in their crucial Game 5 win. 

Haliburton was used as both a defender on Brunson in switches with McBride and was caught flat-footed with McBride as his prime assignment after McBride was inserted into the starting lineup. That adjustment from head coach Tom Thibodeau this late in a series proved necessary, as McBride is both a great shooter and an excellent on-ball defender. McBride being inserted also meant that the Knicks could screen for him and for Brunson far earlier than they had in previous games, opening New York’s offense up as the Indiana Pacers had been using a full-court press to slow Brunson down and force late shot clock decisions. 

With McBride in alongside Brunson, that gameplan is moot. McBride has developed into such a good ball handler that he can dribble the ball up the floor without attracting as much attention as Brunson does while also forcing Haliburton into the action. Screening and passing off to Brunson, and initiating so many guard-guard pick-and-roll actions, was simply forcing the Pacers to play directly into the Knicks’ vision as they sought to find ways to free themselves up from the pesky defense of Nesmith on Brunson. 

The Knicks are sure to involve (and start) McBride again in Game 6 as they both look to close out this series and see what could potentially work longer term if OG Anunoby is not healthy for their next game, whether it be Game 7 back at MSG or Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. His presence with the starters, and most importantly with Haliburton, forces Indiana to do the thing they were never really capable of doing consistently during the regular season: play smart defense.

Haliburton is a threat but his inability to navigate the pick-and-roll actions implemented by Brunson and McBride in Game 5 was a huge blemish on his resume for this series. The Knicks hope it becomes another mark on his record in Game 6.


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