Pistons, Pacers struggling toward finish line

Indiana and Detroit occupy the last two spots in the Central Division. The lottery-bound teams will play their second-to-last games this season in the Pacers’ home finale on Friday night.Both clubs are stumbling to the finish line. Indiana (34-46) has lost six of its last seven and eight of its last 10 contests. Detroit (16-64) has dropped 11 straight and 22 of its last 23 games.The Pacers have played without All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton the last five games due to an ankle injury. They scored 129 points without him on Wednesday and still lost to the New York Knicks.New York, which played without top scorers Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson, scored 32 or more points in each quarter to claim a 138-129 win.The Pacers also played without center Myles Turner, forcing coach Rick Carlisle to use a makeshift lineup.”The guys that started the game learned some valuable things (Wednesday) about being ready to play right off the bat against a team that’s very physical,” Carlisle said.New York jumped to a 32-14 lead and the Pacers spent the remainder of the night trying to recover.”They just punched us in the mouth early,” forward Jalen Smith said. “We got off to a slow start. I don’t think we (were) fully prepared to play as a starting unit. That was our fault. That was the reason why we dug that hole, why we lost that game.”Veteran guard T.J. McConnell came off the bench and kept the Pacers within striking range by posting 18 points and 12 assists in 22 minutes. McConnell is averaging 14.5 points in the last eight games.