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Soft New York Knicks Will Need to Toughen Up to Get by Pacers

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The Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks battle during Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series …

COMMENTARY | The first three games of this year's NBA Eastern Conference semifinal series between the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers have revealed an alarming theme for Knicks fans.

Outside of a couple of New York runs (one good, another great) in Game 2, the Pacers have simply been tougher.

Third-seeded Indiana's 82-71 win at home in Game 3 on Saturday night (April 11) came as little surprise considering it came at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, in Indianapolis, the site of both the second-seeded Knicks' previous season-low point total (during an 81-76 loss, albeit without Carmelo Anthony, on January 10) and New York's worst loss of the season (in a 125-91 defeat on February 20).

What's particularly troubling to the Knicks' chances of getting out of the series and advancing to the Eastern finals is the way the Pacers have taken their 2-1 series lead.

The Pacers Outhustled the Knicks to Win Game 1

In Game 1 (a 102-95 Indiana victory in New York), a common denominator across the board was the Knicks' admitted lack of hustle and effort as being the reason they lost (as I had detailed here).

Think about that for a moment.

Game 1 of the Eastern semifinals. The first time the Knicks franchise was playing in that round in 13 years, on national television, at home, where they were favored to win. And, with all of that, they lost. Not because shots didn't fall, or because they failed to execute enough, mind you. But, because they got outworked.

Check out some of the mindboggling comments following that game:

"I thought they played harder than we did," admitted head coach Mike Woodson after that loss. "They did all the little things. We didn't start playing until we actually got down, and it was desperation. We have to play like that from the start… we have to give a better effort across the board for us to get out of this series."

Reserve forward Kenyon Martin confessed, "We have to come out with a better sense of urgency."

And, Anthony said, "You take the Xs and Os out of the game, they flat our played harder than we did today. That was the key to their victory. They outplayed and outworked us. There is nothing else that needs to be said about that."

Um, yeah there is, since that should never happen in that situation!

Now, maybe after beating Indiana in both regular season meetings at home, New York was feeling overconfident. However, given the issues they had with playing the Pacers on the road before, the Knicks had to know what was coming in Game 3 -- at least enough to take Game 1 seriously and to make sure they'd have a 2-0 series lead instead of being tied, 1-1, before heading to a place that hadn't treated them kindly this year.

And, in Game 3, the Pacers Were Just Tougher

Sure enough, in Game 3, Indiana imposed its will on New York and forced the Knicks to play its style rather than the other way around. Whether it was Martin or Tyson Chandler defending, Roy Hibbert had his way, with a game-high 24 points and 12 rebounds, eight on the offensive glass (nearly half of the Pacers' impressive 18 offensive boards).

The 12 rebounds pulled down by Hibbert matched the anemic number grabbed by Chandler for the entire series to this point, despite Chandler's tough reputation as New York's man in the middle, his Defensive Player of the Year Award last season, and his All-Star status this year. None of those accolades mean a thing though, when a player like Hibbert is able to do what he wants.

That was key in Game 3, considering Indiana's leading scorer, Paul George, shot just 4 of 17 and the Pacers made the same poor 35 percent of their field goal attempts that the Knicks did.

Indiana Also Beat New York at its Own Game, in Game 3

Outhustling New York to a sizable advantage on the boards (44-30, in Game 1, and 53-40, in Game 3) was expected for the league's top rebounding team against one of the NBA's worst, but what was truly surprising is that in Indiana's two wins in the series, the Knicks -- who led the league in three-point attempts (28.9) and makes (10.9), while making an NBA record 891 3s during the regular season -- tried and made fewer shots from behind the arc than the Pacers.

Indiana was 8 of 23, compared to New York's 7 of 19 from three-point range in Game 1, and in Game 3, the disparity was much greater, with the Pacers going 10 of 33, while holding the Knicks to just 3 of 11 shooting from that distance.

Just another example of the way Indiana has physically taken New York out of its game, and how the Pacers have been psychologically stronger than the softer Knicks with sticking to a game plan that works.

Plenty of Time for a Knicks Comeback, But Only if New York Gets Tougher

Still, New York has been resilient to beat Indiana before. At one point, when the Knicks were mired in a prolonged 20-21 mid-season slump, it appeared that the Pacers would steal the two seed and home court edge for the series the teams are competing in now. But, New York found itself and finished the regular season 16-2 to secure the two seed.

And, following their Game 1 loss, the Knicks responded with a 26-point win in Game 2. Yet, even in that victory, New York trailed 64-62, late in the third quarter. Aside from a 9-0 run to end the first quarter in that game, and a decisive 36-4 spurt spanning the final two periods of that contest, New York has largely been outplayed and out-toughed in the series.

Somehow, the Knicks will have to find a way to win three times against Indiana, with only four chances left to do so. And, since they lost their focus in Game 1, they'll have to get at least one of those victories in a place in which they're 0-3 this year, in a building in which they've been forced to play the Pacers' style.

Those three additional series wins won't happen for New York unless the Knicks start playing a lot tougher, both mentally and physically, against a team that for the most part, has been the better of the two at understanding what Eastern Conference playoff basketball is all about.

Jonathan Wagner is a New York Knicks beat writer for New York Sports Day and a co-host discussing the Knicks and other sports topics on the New York Sports Geeks internet radio show (powered by Sportsideo). Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanJWagner.

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