The New York Knicks, once thought of as the top threat in the East to defeat the mighty Miami Heat, are out of the playoffs. And they have one of their own to blame, following Saturday’s 106-99 Indiana Pacers win and series conquest in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Lance Stephenson grew up in Brooklyn hating the Indiana Pacers. After a rough start to NBA career, though, he grew into loving working for his adopted hometown and Pacer team, and he was likely more than cognizant of the criticism that arose from his time spent as Indiana’s top backcourt penetrator during the team’s Game 5 loss against the New York Knicks on Thursday. With George Hill out, the Pacers needed someone to step up on the perimeter, and Stephenson (13 points on 13 shots) could not step up. Game 6, however, was about as “up” as steps come.
Even with George Hill in the Pacer starting lineup, Stephenson put up a career-high 25 points in the contest, topping his previous playoff-high in points by halftime by dropping 16 on the Knicks. Working between New York’s smallish lineup, the former University of Cincinnati guard also weaved his way toward 10 rebounds in just 34 minutes, his fourth double-digit rebounding game of the postseason. And though the Knicks reverted to their old, winning ways – a small rotation, plenty of three-point attempts – the team just could not keep in front of the younger Indiana Pacers.
Though he was mostly shut out of the fourth quarter, mostly, this wasn’t Carmelo Anthony’s fault. From the outset of the game it was apparent that the Knicks coaching staff was attempting to make Anthony’s mid-post looks a priority, and throughout the game the MVP-vote garner used his touch and savvy to out-duel an all-world defender in Paul George. Anthony tossed in 39 points on 29 shots before the Pacer defense decided that Carmelo Anthony, alone, was not going to send them to a Game 7 in New York.
Initially, the Pacers chose incorrectly, as the Knicks responded with a flurry of three-pointers from Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and Chris Copeland. The Pacer defense, ranked tops in the league for the better part of the 2012-13 NBA season, adapted. New York scored just 18 points in the final quarter of their season, as Stephenson tossed in some opportunistic makes, David West found some cutters with timely passes, and the Pacers earned trips to the line.
And before Knick fans and NBA know-alls toss the final tally in Carmelo Anthony’s face, they should understand that the Indiana Pacers are a better basketball team than Carmelo’s New York Knicks. The outcome of this series, is the correct one.
Part of that, in a weird way, is Carmelo’s fault. He demanded a trade to New York that saw Isiah Thomas (unofficially, as he was technically not a Knick employee at the time) inspiring a depth-killing deal from Denver to New York that gave Anthony both a maximum-level contract and very little room around him save for his fellow eight-figure earning teammates in Amar’e Stoudemire (two points in less than six minutes in Game 6) and Tyson Chandler (two points, six rebounds, and six fouls in less than 23 minutes). The Pacers’ bench is hardly inspiring, but Indiana’s rotation still had enough to circle the wagons when Anthony appeared to be well on his way toward winning the game by himself in the third quarter.
Indiana wasn’t bothered, though, which is impressive for a team that went into Saturday afternoon not knowing if George Hill could even suit up for the rest of the series; while potentially tailing off a year that was spent mostly without former All-Star Danny Granger. Roy Hibbert spent the better part of two months shooting less than 40 percent from the field. Coach Frank Vogel probably walks the streets of his own city without recognition. A guy named Sam Young, somehow, was crucial for key parts of this game. And yet the team is four wins away from its second NBA Finals appearance in the team’s post-ABA history.
The Knicks boast six former All-Stars, the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award, and the NBA’s sixth-highest payroll. This loss isn’t a damning indictment of going after big names and top salaries, though.
The Indiana Pacers, a team that sent all five of its starters to the podium following Game 6, were just the better team. And prior to their Game 1 matchup with the Miami Heat on Wednesday, you’ll have a small bit of time to learn their names.