The fears facing New York Knicks fans heading into the Eastern Conference semifinals focused on the Indiana Pacers' defense. In general, the concern was whether a best-in-the-league unit even stingier than the Boston Celtics group that gave the Knicks' O fits in Round 1 would prove too daunting a task. More specifically, the worries centered on whether a younger, faster, quicker and longer-limbed squad than Boston — featuring wing defenders capable of shutting off perimeter penetration one-on-one, a 7-foot-2 eraser capable of protecting the rim without requiring double teams and a system geared toward running opponents off the 3-point line — would eliminate the kind of open long-range looks born of dribble penetration and ball movement that made New York so dangerous during the regular season.
Through three games, those fears seem well-founded. New York's averaging just 90.3 points per game in the Eastern Conference semifinals, shooting 43.2 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from 3-point range in the series, and is coming off a Game 3 suffocation that saw them set season lows in 3-point makes and attempts. The Knicks are averaging 100.9 points per 100 possessions against the Pacers, which represents a massive drop-off from their season-long efficiency (108.6-per-100, third-best in the NBA) and is heavily inflated by the Knicks' late-Game-2 run. New York averaged less than one point per possession in their Game 1 loss and scored at a heinous 82.6-per-100 clip in Game 3, which is a level of ineptitude miles beyond what even the absolute worst NBA offenses typically muster.
It's tempting to suggest that this is a matter of leading scorers Carmelo Anthony (29 for 70, 41.4 percent) and J.R. Smith (11 for 42 in the series, 26.2 percent) just being embroiled in a slump from which they need to shake loose. The reality, though, is that Indiana defends the scoring pair roughly this well — both Anthony and Smith shot less 38 percent against the Pacers this season — and that the poor 100.9-per-100 efficiency mark (which would have tied the Knicks with the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons for the league's ninth-worst offense this year) is actually a stark improvement over New York's regular-season numbers against Indiana (91.8-per-100, their lowest mark against any opponent this season). This is not a cold snap or a fluke; this is what happens when an excellent defense knows how you're going to attack them, and you continue to attack them that way.
With that in mind, Game 4 might be a good time for Knicks coach Mike Woodson to consider attacking the Pacers a different way — by counteracting Indiana's grinding size by going smaller earlier and trying to kickstart a flagging offense by inserting little-used rookie Chris Copeland, whom Woodson has said could see more minutes in Indiana on Tuesday. That's a good idea.
Back before the start of the semifinals, I suggested giving Copeland a longer look against the Pacers in our series preview, thinking that his combination of 3-point shooting, off-the-dribble creativity and ability to finish broken plays might come in handy. He didn't see much action in Round 1; after starting the opening game of the Celtics series due to an injury to guard Pablo Prigioni and performing poorly — scoreless in 13 minutes, with Woodson saying he thought the 29-year-old rookie “looked nervous” in his postseason debut — Copeland found himself buried on the Knicks bench, logging three DNP-CDs against Boston. Copeland hasn't returned to the rotation since the Knicks eliminated the Celtics, popping up only sparingly in Games 1 through 3 against Indy.
It is, to some degree, understandable that Woodson hasn't thrown Copeland out there more freely and more often. For one thing, as the coach noted at the Knicks' Monday practice when asked about the likes of Copeland and center Marcus Camby, the presence of Anthony, centers Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin, and just-returned power forward Amar'e Stoudemire makes for a pretty crowded frontcourt already ("I can’t play 13 guys, [expletive]").
For another, with points and possessions at such a premium in a slow-paced postseason series, you get why Woodson might be leery of relying on a defender who struggled at times in one-on-one situations, anchoring against larger defenders, executing his help-defense responsibilities as part of the Knicks' team defense and working on the defensive glass. On a basic, elemental, coach-from-your-gut level, if Woodson doesn't trust the comparatively inexperienced Copeland as much as he trusts the other veterans in his frontcourt rotation — and he hasn't all season — then it's easy to grasp why the coach wouldn't opt for Copeland in the most high-leverage moments of the season.
That said, from a more removed perspective, it seems clear that even those veteran defenders aren't having a whole hell of a lot of success in keeping the Pacers off the boards or slowing down the likes of Indiana center Roy Hibbert, who's eating the lunch of a diminished Tyson Chandler — 57.7 percent from the floor when Chandler's out there in this series, with 12 offensive rebounds in 87 minutes — en route to near-monocle podium games. So if the "try to match size, physicality and toughness" approach isn't working, why not try out a spark that might help you outscore the opponent — which has been the Knicks' M.O. all year — and create a different offensive look for the Pacers to deal with?
The Knicks' primary offensive problems in this series have been their inability to beat Hibbert at the rim, threaten Indiana's defensive rotations with dribble penetration and generate 3-point looks. Inserting Copeland into the mix would seem to at least open the door to ameliorating some of those woes, particularly if Woodson's willing to roll the dice by putting Copeland at the five against Hibbert in some of the super small-ball lineups that worked wonders for the Knicks near the end of the regular season, as identified by Grantland Xs-and-Os champ Brett Koremenos:
[Copeland] will often begin most possessions diving hard off a pick-and-roll. This is the Chandler role, and it’s a vitally important one for a team’s offense. That cut through the paint forces defenses to collapse and jam Copeland. What makes him unique as a 5, however, is that instead of loitering around the basket looking for putbacks on dribble penetration — something that can often create a cluster of players around the rim — Copeland spaces out toward the perimeter [...]
The ability to put another floor-spacer on the court also helps when the Knicks' original attacks break down. If their first few actions occur without a shot, the team just spreads the floor and allows perimeter players like [Iman] Shumpert, [Raymond] Felton, or Anthony to exploit huge driving gaps.
Those gaps exist because Copeland — unlike Chandler, Martin or a still-rusty Stoudemire — is a legitimate threat to hit perimeter shots. The Colorado product shot 42.1 percent from 3-point land this year, and his ability to consistently hit from both the top of the floor (42.9 percent above the break) and from the short corners (41.5 percent) could give the Knicks more options on pick-and-pop looks off screen-and-rolls, whether begun high or (more preferably) on the sides of the floor, as Posting and Toasting's Dylan Murphy prescribed after Game 3.
Chandler and Martin present no offensive threat when they act as screeners in actions initiated up top, because there is precisely zero chance one of them will pop loose for a jumper; for them to do any damage at all, they'll have to roll hard to the rim after setting the pick (which they haven't been doing all that much or all that effectively) and their path will bring them right into Hibbert, stationed in the lane, watching and waiting. (This is why you see a lot of Hibbert ignoring the Knicks' bigs in the screenshots accompanying Mike Prada's SB Nation breakdown of how good Indy's defense was in Game 3.)
Matching Copeland up against Hibbert, on the other hand, as the Knicks did in an April win while Chandler was sidelined, puts the 7-foot-2 center in the unenviable position of having to either concede jumpers to a good shooter if he's unwilling to abandon the rim/too slow to do so:
Or exit the paint to contest the shot, which affords Copeland the chance to showcase the small forward's off-the-bounce skills he brings to the stretch-five spot, either to create for a teammate with the paint now vacated or to look for his own quick-fire shot before the defense can adjust:
That mixture worked well in New York's April win, as Copeland continued his surprisingly strong play with 20 points on 8 for 12 shooting and going 2 for 4 from downtown in 34 minutes. In fact, as Koremenos noted, while Woodson went to Copeland at the five very sparingly (and, really, only out of necessity due to injury depletion and foul trouble) during the regular season, it tended to be a productive lineup configuration for the Knicks. The sample sizes are small, but the results were pretty interesting:
• Copeland as the small-ball center alongside Anthony, Smith, Felton and Jason Kidd: Nine games, 38 total minutes, 121.3 points scored per 100 possessions, 108.8-per-100 allowed, +12.4-per-100, 55.6 percent effective field goal percentage (which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers) and 60.6 percent True Shooting percentage (which also factors in the value of free throws).
• Copeland, Smith, Kidd, Felton and Steve Novak (another range shooter who might be a welcome addition to the Knicks lineup on Tuesday): Six games, 35 total minutes, 127.6 points scored per 100 possessions, 117.2-per-100 allowed, +10.4-per-100, 64.2 percent eFG%, 69.1 percent TS%.
• Copeland, Anthony, Shumpert, Prigioni and Felton: Two games, 22 minutes, 144.5-per-100 scored, 80.5-per-100 allowed, +64-per-100, 61.6 percent eFG%, 62.6 percent TS%.
Three other Copeland-at-the-five lineups — with Novak-Kidd-Smith-Prigioni, Anthony-Novak-Smith-Kidd and Novak-Smith-Shumpert-Kidd — also posted stellar offensive efficiency numbers and shooting percentages in sub-20-minute packages. (The same went for several other floor-spacing lineups that didn't feature Copeland at the five and also saw only small-stint playing time, including Stoudemire-Copeland-Novak-Smith-Prigioni and Chandler-Anthony-Copeland-Shumpert-Kidd.) The doses were small, but these lineups were potent, due in part to Copeland's ability to create and exploit mismatches against slower, more paint-laden opponents.
Now, this isn't to say that the answer to unlocking the Pacers' defense is as simple as putting a dude with dreadlocks in the lineup and rolling out the ball — Indiana's been the league's best defensive team all year, and they're aware that the Knicks are likely to juggle their personnel and play-calling for Game 4. It will be incumbent on New York to take advantage of any slip-ups Indiana might make with sharp on- and off-ball action and quick decision-making. Another offensive playmaker in the mix could help New York's chances of capitalizing; after three games of largely punchless play, it's time to find out if Copeland can provide that spark.