2 days after a bad game, McConnell, Toppin lead Pacers off bench vs. Knicks to even series

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was late Friday night in the Pacers’ locker room, about an hour after Indiana won a bare-knuckle brawl in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals over the New York Knicks. It was about as close as it gets to a “must-win.” Go down 3-0? Good luck coming back.

The Pacers did win, thanks to a 31-foot Andrew Nembhard dagger at Gainbridge Fieldhouse that will raise in historical lore should they come back and take this series from the Knicks. In the locker room after the game, T.J. McConnell praised Nembhard and the rest of his teammates.

But the 32-year-old McConnell, such an integral part of the Pacers’ success this season and in the postseason off the bench, clearly was not happy with his own performance in Game 3. Or that of his bench teammates. McConnell shot 3-for-10 from the field and had six points. McConnell, Obi Toppin, Ben Sheppard and Isaiah Jackson – the four players off the Pacers’ bench on Friday – contributed just 14 points on 7-for-22 shooting.

“I don’t think our bench was particularly great tonight,” McConnell said after Game 3. “But that’s what makes this sport so great. There’s a starting unit and a bench unit and the bench has been consistent all year, but it wasn’t our night tonight. Our starters really picked us up and brought us all the way back. We rode them down the stretch and they were great.”

Two days later, on a beautiful Sunday Mother’s Day afternoon, the bench delivered in a 121-89 win over the Knicks. The whole team did, really, to the tie the series 2-2. But the difference from Game 3 to 4 from the bench was striking. McConnell finished with 15 points and 10 assists in 21 minutes to lead that group, shooting 6-for-12 from the field and draining both of his 3-point attempts to the delight of the home crowd.

Pacers score: Pacers' defense turns into offense as they blowout Knicks in Game 4 to tie the series

“T.J. is one of our leaders, man,” said Myles Turner, who was a perfect 5-for-5 from the field, including 3-for-3 from the 3-point line. “He’s really taken it upon himself to lead that second unit and he took full ownership for what happened last game. It’s very rare that does happen. But I think he came out with a great spirit tonight and led those guys.”

You could argue the game was never in doubt. And it certainly felt that way after the Pacers took a 20-point lead at the end of the first quarter and a 28-point lead into halftime. With the outcome decided, the fourth quarter felt more like a preseason game than the playoffs. But credit the bench for making an early statement.

Sheppard was first to sub into the game, followed quickly by Toppin and McConnell. The Pacers led, 10-4. McConnell, just 30 seconds after coming into the game, stole a pick-and-roll pass from Jalen Brunson and pitched it ahead to Tyrese Haliburton for a dunk. McConnell scored on the next possession on a reverse layup in transition, then scored on a driving and-1 as he was fouled by Brunson. On the next possession, he beat Donte DiVincenzo on a drive.

The Pacers led, 24-8. In the span of 2 minutes, 30 seconds, McConnell produced seven points, one steal and one assist. The game was not over, but it felt headed that direction.

“We just tried to take what the starters did an elevate it,” McConnell said. “Energy-wise, pace-wise. Good bounce back from our bench on that standpoint.”

McConnell was asked in the postgame news conference if he shouted, “I’m back!” after his and-1 on Brunson. Possibly, more likely, it was “And One!” that he yelled.

“I don’t think I said that,” he said. “But we got two good ones here in front of our crowd, just like they did. And credit to our fans who brought great energy. We love playing in front of them. But New York took care of home court. We took care of home court. We’re walking into MSG and know what type of environment (it will be). They have a great fan base and obviously they play really well there so we have to be prepared.”

McConnell and Toppin, in particular, seem to energize the Pacers’ fans. Those two combined for arguably the biggest highlight of game on an alley-oop from McConnell to Toppin to put the Pacers up by 23 points late in the first quarter.

Toppin finished with 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting in 18 minutes and the 22-year-old Sheppard added six points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes.

“(McConnell) will be ready every game,” Pacers’ coach Rick Carlisle said. “Our bench responded well tonight. But it’s all about hard play, do your job, trust the pass and stick to our habits as much as we can.”

The message from Carlisle and the Pacers after the game was rooted in moving on quickly.

“Moving on to Tuesday, it will be a totally different deal back in their place,” Carlisle said.

But if there such a thing as momentum in a playoff series, it is certainly in the Pacers’ favor. While there will not be Pacers’ fans to feed off in New York for Game 6, the Pacers themselves can rally around McConnell’s energy.

“When he checks in, there’s not many people better at doing what he does and that’s brining energy off the bench,” Haliburton said. “When he checks in, it allows me to play off the ball a little more. At times, he might look at me like, ‘Oh you got it.’ But I want him to run so I can kick it ahead so he can get downhill. But his energy is just contagious and everybody kind of feeds off of that.”

Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: McConnell, Toppin lead Pacers' bench to masterful performance in Game 4