The Knicks and Pacers tip off on Sunday (Getty Images)
Somehow, the NBA survived its regular season and first round of the postseason with enough players to field eight teams, so we’re just going to go ahead and begin the conference semifinals. The minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each second-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
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Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
After the slogfest that was the Pacers’ 4-2 first round victory over the Atlanta Hawks, a sloughing off seems in order. Forget the tired small vs. big market comparisons — the Pacers are relegated to the league’s second tier mostly because they play an unassuming, withering brand of at-times bland basketball. This group was created to minimize mistakes defensively and attempt to hold its own offensively. And now April’s top NBA TV team will be working in a nationally televised month.
The Pacers are also the worst possible thing that could happen to the Knicks right now. Indiana’s volatile mix of length, defensive smarts, capable quickness and potent depth will greet New York with what should be a terrifying problem. Even if the Knicks improve measurably on the disappointment that was the final three games of their series against the Boston Celtics, they will still be in for a test.
A massive test. And that’s with Carmelo Anthony’s left shoulder still hurting, a shoulder that was originally hurt in a tough Knick win over the Pacers in the last week of the regular season. That’s with Tyson Chandler at less than full strength, J.R. Smith coming off of what was a questionable first round, and Raymond Felton set to square off against a pair of tough defensive guards in George Hill and Lance Stephenson. On paper, the Knicks are up against a team that seems designed to top them.
There’s just one problem, for Indiana. It’s all that star power. It might get in the way of the paper leading the Pacers to their first conference finals in 13 years.
"It only hurts when you hurt it." (Getty Images)
Which then leads to the uneasy truth about what, overall, is a very impressive Pacers team: Indiana sometimes can’t score 85 points in an empty gym. One rough quarter in Indianapolis, even followed up by a series of silly shots from Mssrs. Smith, Felton and Anthony, and the Knicks could rack up a 3-0 or 3-1 lead while on the road. Indiana can go that cold, that quickly.
This is why the Pacers have to steal one in New York to not just take the series, but merely compete. The team has to understand that status isn’t important in the second round, and that the plucky Pacer overachievers who surprised the Miami Heat (a team that was still figuring things out) in the second round last year are now expected to act as front-runners. The Pacers have to act like they belong, and remember that they’re on ABC now.
Most importantly, the Pacers have to bait the Knicks into thinking that New York’s way is the best way.
The Knicks go for long stretches without attempting to execute actual plays, instead relying on isolation sets as opposed to pick and rolls or the motion offense that has done them so well this year. Anthony has to be prodded by the Pacers into trying to attack one-on-one, and Indiana has to be ready when he makes a great point to fire a cross-court pass to a teammate just to register an assist, one of those “see, I’m a passer too!”-moments. These passes can be intercepted. When the recipient fires up a long jumper right away just to make sure Anthony is credited, those long rebounds have to be corralled.
The Pacers know how this sort of offense works, because too often they fall into that trap themselves. Too much of the shot clock is run off before a play is initiated. David West (yay!) and Stephenson (not so much) will force shots if they feel they’re being unappreciated in the offense. Tyler Hansbrough hasn’t passed since January. Gerald Green still doesn’t know some of these guys’ names.
In all, though, the Pacers have the bodies. They match up well with New York, and the team’s “test” against the Hawks proved that they have the temerity needed to lure a team into acting as its own worst enemy.
The Knicks and Pacers are playing in May. This is always a marvelous thing, even if you should be betting the under every time out.
PREDICTION: Pacers in 6.
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements – a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. – that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos” comes from the song “Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
New York Knicks: Chris Copeland, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
After finishing off a six-game struggle that saw their offense grind to a halt thanks to a Kevin Garnett-led defense and a maddeningly iso-heavy attack, the Knicks get to shed those shackles, turn to face the future ... and head into a matchup with an even more accomplished defensive squad that’s even better equipped to lock them up.
No team snuffed out the Knicks’ attack as forcefully and effectively as the Pacers this year. (This isn’t too surprising, given Indiana’s yearlong position atop the league’s defensive rankings.) In four games against Indiana, which the two teams split, New York scored an average of 91.8 points per 100 possessions, a full six points-per-100 below than the Washington Wizards’ league-worst offense. For a Knicks team that’s made its bones by outscoring opponents, that kind of punchlessness (small sample sizes or no) has to be at least a bit worrisome heading into this semifinals matchup.
Now, you can argue that those numbers are skewed south a bit by a dismal offensive performance in a Jan. 10 game in which Anthony didn’t play while serving a one-game suspension; the Knicks managed 76 points, their second-lowest total of the season, and lost by five. But Anthony was in the lineup for the other three games, including their worst loss of the season, a 34-point post-All-Star-break drubbing in which Anthony managed 15 points on 21 shots and the Knicks’ offense was actually a tick less productive on a per-possession basis than it was in the ‘Melo-less January loss. Even in New York’s two wins, Indiana’s lockdown defense uglied the game up and held the Knicks’ No. 3-ranked offense well below its usual standard, with Anthony (22 points per contest, 37.9 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from deep, nearly 2 1/2 fewer free-throw attempts than his season average) struggling mightily against Pacers bruiser David West and perimeter ace Paul George.
Simply doing what the Knicks did for large stretches of the Boston series — ambling into a half-court set, running an action, watching the top option get blown up by an active defense, then handing the ball to Anthony or J.R. Smith on a wing iso and hoping for the best — won’t work against the Pacers. The Knicks need additional variables on the offensive end, especially with a possibly returning Amar’e Stoudemire unlikely to be effective quickly after being shelved for two months, and Steve Novak (who shot 37.5 percent from 3 against Indiana this season) out indefinitely with back spasms. Copeland might be just such a wild card.
The 29-year-old rookie journeyman saw limited action in the teams’ first three meetings, but scored 20 points in 34 minutes as a small-ball stretch five with Tyson Chandler injured in their final game of the season, which New York won. It was a performance largely in step with Copeland's post-All-Star break play, which saw him average just under 12 points in 20 minutes per game, shooting 48.2 percent from the floor and 46.2 percent from 3-point range. For a Knicks offense that stagnated throughout the opening round, Copeland’s shooting touch could provide additional spacing in half-court sets, a bit of off-the-bounce quickness and creativity against Indy’s hard 3-point-arc closeouts, and another option to finish plays broken by the Pacers’ swarming D.
Woodson buried Copeland on the bench for the final three games of the Celtics series for several reasons — concerns that the forward would be a defensive liability (a season-long issue), especially when paired with Novak in second-unit lineups; worry about a left shoulder injury suffered in the Knicks’ regular-season finale; a lack of confidence following a Game 1 start in which the coach said he felt Copeland “looked nervous.” But with Novak sidelined, big men Chandler and Kenyon Martin available to babysit on D, the shoulder reportedly ready to roll and Indy’s defense set to load up against Anthony and Smith on the wing as well as the Chandler-Raymond Felton pick-and-roll, Woodson might do well to look past his own nerves and give Copeland another look.
"Good George, bad George, good George, bad George ..." (Getty Images)
Indiana Pacers: The Good George Hill.
Here’s what the Pacers point guard produced in Indy’s four wins over the Atlanta Hawks: 19 points on 56.5 percent shooting and 47.6 percent from 3-point land. Here’s what he chipped in during their two first-round losses: 7.5 points on 21.7 percent shooting, 0 for 9 from deep.
Hill wasn’t a major offensive factor in four games against the Knicks this season — he scored 16 total points on 5 for 11 shooting with nine assists against three turnovers in Indy’s two wins, and 13 points on 4 for 17 shooting with 11 assists against four turnovers in the Pacers’ two losses. But Frank Vogel doesn’t need him to be a major offensive factor; the coach just needs Hill to be solid. When Hill’s solid, more often than not, Indiana wins — the Pacers are 27-14 (including playoffs) when he scores at least 15 points this season, 27-7 when he shoots 50 percent or better from the floor, and 26-17 when he makes two or more 3-pointers.
When Hill knocks down outside shots, especially on inside-out feeds generated by the post play of West and Roy Hibbert, he prevents defenses from packing the paint and loading up on his bigs. That’s huge for an Indy offense that has struggled to score all year, ranking 19th of 30 teams in total points per possession, according to NBA.com’s stat tool, and that relies heavily on the post game — 18 percent of their offensive possessions have come off post-ups, more than any other play type logged in Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data, and they've produced the NBA’s fifth-highest number of points per post-up.
The offensive punch becomes especially important if All-Star forward George continues to play Jekyll and Hyde from the floor, interspersing rough outings (3 for 13 in Game 1 against Atlanta, 4 for 11 in Game 3, 6 for 16 in Game 4, 2 for 10 in Game 6) and strong ones (11 for 21 in Game 2, 7 for 8 in Game 5). If his ‘mates misfire and the Knicks can load up down low, responsibility for providing spacing could fall to Hill; if the Good George Hill shows up, Indy’s offense should have enough room to breathe against a middling New York D.
Hill will be critical on the other end, too, as he follows a series in which he largely shut down Hawks triggerman Jeff Teague (13.3 points on 33 percent shooting in the series) by drawing the task of checking Felton. The Knicks guard handily won his matchup with Celtics defensive maestro Avery Bradley and was at times lethal in breaking down Boston’s half-court defense, orchestrating in the screen game to draw mismatches against Celtics bigs and attack the basket, or stringing out the pick-and-roll game just enough to create room to loft lobs for Chandler to flush.
As detailed above, Indy’s defense figures to be even more difficult to solve than Boston’s was. If Hill can put the clamps on Felton (who averaged just 11.3 points and 4.7 assists in 30 minutes per game against the Pacers this season), it might just prove to be an impossible problem to overcome.
PREDICTION: Knicks in 7.
J.R. Smith has made an impact! (Getty Images)
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
J.R. Smith: For a little over a week, Smith was considered a valuable veteran presence. He was handed the Sixth Man of the Year award, played a big part in what looked a likely sweep of the Celtics, and generally looked like someone who could be trusted in an important moment. Then everything went to hell: he elbowed Jason Terry in the chin in a game that was already decided, missed a tight Game 4 loss due to suspension, returned in Game 5 for a woeful 3 of 14 shooting performance, and did just enough in Game 6 to help out in the win but not enough to reclaim his lofty status.
As a pending free agent, Smith was set for a major payday — now he’s reminding everyone why his teams have historically had a hard time warming to one of the biggest boom-bust talents in recent memory. While his recently won hardware will do him a lot of good on the open market, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s giving prospective employers plenty of reasons to say “yes, but …” in negotiations. A solid series against the Pacers, filled with no outright disasters and a few 20-point scoring nights, could help J.R. push those concerns to the margins.
Tyson Chandler: Despite his reputation as one of the best defensive players in the NBA, Chandler gets relatively little credit for just how much of an impact he’s had in the last few seasons. There are few players who can claim two gold medals, a Defensive Player of the Year award, a championship ring, and a fanzine, but Chandler has continually been overshadowed by more famous teammates and tabloid drama. Yet, while everything the Knicks do or don’t accomplish serves as a reflection on Carmelo Anthony’s ability to lead the team, it’s arguable that Chandler is the team’s most irreplaceable player.
The Pacers have a varied offensive attack without any one focus, which could serve to prove just how much of an impact Chandler has on every aspect of the Knicks defense. If several of Indiana’s top scorers struggle, perhaps Chandler will finally be mentioned as the top factor in his team’s success, not simply a guy who does the unglamorous work.
Frank Vogel: Although Paul George and Roy Hibbert have established themselves as the Pacers’ marquee players, Indiana still thrives on its versatility and wealth of options. In such a setup, success tends to reflect not so much on any one player as it does on the coach, the man who theoretically organizes things and gets each player to feel comfortable in his role. Vogel has made an impressive name for himself since becoming interim coach in 2011, but there is a sense that he’s not yet in the top tier of name-brand NBA coaches. In part, that’s because Vogel hasn’t yet made a conference finals, but it’s also due to the fact that Indianapolis is a fairly small market that requires that sort of high-end achievement to bring its team heightened attention. Defeating the Knicks would certainly qualify as such.
PREDICTION: Pacers in 6.
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