Is Pacers coach Rick Carlisle right to be upset about officiating in Knicks series and a big-market bias?

It wouldn’t be the playoffs we know and love without some campaigning and allegations that something nefarious is at work with officiating.

Madison Square Garden, a rowdy and desperate Knicks crowd, the Indiana Pacers on the other end and a national TV audience.

Are we sure we’re not done with the '90s?

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle took to his pulpit after his team blew Game 2 to the Knicks, putting them in a 2-0 hole before heading home to Indianapolis. No doubt he was frustrated after two games of some shoddy officiating, some moments those refs would like to have back and a couple of unforgivable calls that went the Knicks’ way.

The Pacers sent in several dozen plays to the league office they considered questionable, which is standard practice for teams following games. It happens all the time, except in this case, the Knicks will be able to see exactly what the Pacers sent in as opposed to it being a bit more clandestine.

Carlisle wasn’t coy about how he felt his team was officiated and the possible motives behind it.

“I’m always talking to our guys about not making it about the officials … but we deserve a fair shot,” Carlisle said. “There’s not a consistent balance, and that’s disappointing. Their physicality is rewarded and ours is penalized.”

And then, the coup de grâce. Carlisle exploded when a double-dribble on Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein was called back, he believes, simply because Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said Hartenstein didn’t commit the infraction.

Now, it didn’t appear Hartenstein double-dribbled, but never — and emphasis on "never" — do you see a coach get a call like that changed once the whistle blows.

“That’s small beans compared to everything else,” Carlisle said. “Small-market teams deserve an equal shot. Deserve a fair shot, no matter where they’re playing.”

If the cause is to get the call right, then Carlisle has a huge point on that micro example. But given what occurred in Game 1, when the Pacers really have a case of being wronged, that logic wasn’t applied when officials incorrectly called a kick ball on the Pacers when Aaron Nesmith cleanly got his hand on a pass from Jalen Brunson during a tied game with 52.1 seconds left.

The call couldn’t be reviewed, and instead of a 4-on-2 fast break for the Pacers, the Knicks received the ball back, then Donte DiVincenzo hit a triple to put the Knicks up, leading to a win.

Carlisle is taking a page from the Phil Jackson, Chuck Daly, Pat Riley, brothers Van Gundy playbook and exerting some pressure to a league that is very sensitive about perceived biases toward a team like the Knicks.

The aforementioned coaches tweaked the league and worked the officials in days between games, a clear agenda to bring attention to the officiating crews who’d work the next games. It was part entertainment, part strategy, and we all leaned into it.

It’s fun, and everybody loves a good conspiracy theory, especially when there’s evidence to back up the claims. The thesis just might not be correct.

Carlisle refused to blame the officiating following Game 1, then looked at the high road two days later and went a step away from nuclear.

Whether he fully believes it or not, Carlisle and other coaches around the league know who’s being talked about nationally, what teams receive the bulk of media and television coverage around the league, and it seeps into their minds. And Carlisle, as president of the coaches association, knows he can't levy serious claims to the integrity of the game.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 08: Indiana Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle argues a call with referee Josh Tiven #58 during the fourth quarter against the New York Knicks in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Second Round Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 08, 2024 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle argues a call with referee Josh Tiven during the fourth quarter of Game 2 against the Knicks. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The NBA doesn’t control what ESPN talks about, and consciously, Carlisle is smart enough to know that. The Lakers get the "A" block, even when they’re nowhere near the playoffs. Orlando and Cleveland and Indiana, nobody knows they exist given the television coverage and, yes, sometimes in this space as well.

And when you continuously hear on broadcasts, “The NBA is so much better when the Knicks are relevant,” it’s hard to ignore — even if you ignore the fact the Knicks have been to a grand total of one Eastern Conference final since 1999.

There’s no denying Madison Square Garden is electric in the springtime, and for the TV visual it looks like an intoxicating environment. The Pacers have a charm, but it’s always been as a small-market foil to the likes of the Knicks, Bulls and even the Miami Heat when LeBron James was there.

Good versus not-so-good, famous versus unknown, it’s a tale as old as time, and it makes for a compelling lead-in.

From a pure basketball standpoint, though, it gets more complicated. The Knicks are an undermanned, rough-and-tumble bunch who play physical at every spot on the floor, starting with their bulldog of a point guard, Jalen Brunson.

He lowers his shoulder and knocks opposing guards off his body like a bowling ball to pins, and he’s done that all year — like the Knicks have.

The Pacers were built like a race car, in the ways the game was officiated in the first half of the season. Small contact was rewarded and physical play was legislated out of the game even more.

But in the second half of the year, the pendulum swung and teams like the Knicks could be more handsy — and once you establish a style, a physical one, you’re probably given more leeway by the officials subconsciously.

It can be difficult to change officiating patterns midstream in a season, especially when officials are trained and drilled in the offseason and implementing change in the preseason while gradually adjusting.

And the games have been better and more compelling than the ticky-tack calls we’ve seen over the last couple years. It’s a welcome change.

However, strange things have happened with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden this season when games were close. Pistons rookie Ausar Thompson was essentially speared on the sideline by DiVincenzo with the Pistons holding a one-point lead and 6.9 seconds remaining, in full view of the official who was more spectator than someone doing his job.

The Knicks scored on that play, won that game and of course, like in Game 1, the officials admitted their mistake in the immediate aftermath but nothing could be done.

The two-minute report frustrates everyone because it doesn’t change what we’ve seen from a million angles the night before, and the last thing anyone wants to see is officials succumb to human error and interrupt competitive, compelling games.

Whistles blown, whistles swallowed, it comes in all forms. It’s not necessarily about free-throw disparity but consistency in calls — like Myles Turner’s questionable offensive foul on a screen where, yes, DiVincenzo was again in the middle of it. The Knicks' talented swingman appeared to flop and, while Turner wasn’t completely set, the contact wasn’t anywhere near egregious — especially compared to the previous play where DiVincenzo leaned in on Nesmith and tangled his arms on a screen to free up Brunson.

That was the play where Brunson threw an errant pass and it was ruled a Knick-ball, or kickball.

DiVincenzo seems to be everywhere, doesn’t he?

But bad calls don’t have to equal a conspiracy on part of the league office or the officiating crew. Carlisle has the right to pull that lever, even when a fine could be coming, to at least plant the seed in everyone’s minds what to watch out for as the series changes venues.

The Pacers can’t change who they are, and while the Knicks are steadily running out of bodies, they won’t change who they are.

Human nature can’t be changed, but you just hope our eyes and our biases aren’t seeing the same things.