The Indiana Pacers stand just one win away from earning their first trip to the Eastern Conference finals in nine years, just 48 minutes from a rematch with a Miami Heat squad that ousted them from the playoffs in the second round one year ago. All they have to do is follow in the footsteps of the Heat and Memphis Grizzlies by taking care of business and beating Carmelo Anthony and his New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in Game 5 on Thursday night.
Given how easily they've handled New York for most of this series — and the fact that they've already won at the World's Most Famous Arena here in Round 2 — you'd think they'd enter Game 5 bursting with hubris, breathing easily and crowing loudly. Except that's not who these Pacers are and it's not what brought them here; to hear them tell it, according to Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star, they're talking like they're facing the '92 Dream Team:
“We haven’t won anything. We have to be perfect,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. “The [Knicks] play extremely well at home. We’re going to have our hands full. They are really an explosive team when at home.” [...]
“It’s going to be 10 times harder, it being in New York,” Pacers swingman Paul George said. “We know how well they play at home, so it’s going to take a great effort, so we’ll see where we’re at.” [...]
“We won in Atlanta, which is a hard place to win, with our backs against the wall, so we know we can win on the road and I think we’re going to take the same mentality to New York and try to close it out there,” Pacers point guard George Hill said. “But like I said, it’s not going to be easy. The [Knicks] play extremely well at home and we’re just going to do the best we can to make it tough for them.” [...]
“We know New York is such an explosive team, such a tenacious team, that we’re not in any shape or form comfortable with what we’re doing and we know we need an extraordinary effort like we had the last couple of games to get a win, and that’s what our focus is,” [Pacers coach Frank] Vogel said.
We respect the well-placed clichés, the repetition of themes and the pitch-perfect coachspeak, guys. But you're overstating just a tad. You don't need to be perfect; you just need to be really, really good, the way you've been throughout this series and, on the defensive end, throughout this season. You just need to be yourselves. That's been enough to beat this Knicks team three times out of four, and it'll be enough in Game 5.
You've used your combination of length and quickness on the perimeter, size and rim protection on the interior and well-drilled, on-a-string discipline to hold the Knicks' offense 10-plus points below their stellar season-long efficiency mark. You've played that suffocating defense, for the most part, without fouling, keeping the Knicks off the charity stripe and limiting their opportunities to get the sort of easy buckets that can help a struggling shooter find his rhythm. You've stalled out what had been one of the league's best offensive units for much of the first three games before sending it careening into a ditch in Game 4.
You've grabbed 56.4 percent of available rebounds in this series and scored nearly 17 points per game on second-chance opportunities, both the best marks in the second round. You've been so dominant on the interior that you influenced Knicks coach Mike Woodson to change his starting lineup for Game 4, opting to fortify his defense and rebounding at the expense of his team's offensive identity, which backfired in a major way — the Knicks still got outrebounded and pounded in the paint, but could not stretch the floor at all and had no hope of outscoring you. (Woodson said Thursday he's considering going back to the small-ball starting lineup that features Pablo Prigioni in place of Kenyon Martin, as a result.)
You've had the best player in the series in George. The 23-year-old emerging star who has found ways to impact the game on both ends of the floor even when his shot isn't falling, averaging just under eight rebounds, five assists and two steals per game while holding Anthony to 31.6 percent shooting when serving as the primary defender on the league's leading scorer.
You've had the best big man in the series in Hibbert. The 7-foot-2 Georgetown product's max contract looks a lot less dicey when he's grabbing twice as many offensive rebounds as Tyson Chandler has defensive boards through four games and holding New York to a paltry 45.3 percent on shots attempted in the restricted area while he's in the game.
You've had the better point guard in the series in Hill, who, quiet as it's kept, is averaging 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in this series while also teaming with Hibbert to all but eliminate the havoc-wreaking dribble penetration that Raymond Felton (a quiet 13 points and 3.5 assists per game this series) unleashed against Kevin Garnett, Avery Bradley and the Boston Celtics in Round 1. I said before this series that a steady, solid "Good George Hill" was usually enough for the Pacers to win games; while he's had turnover issues at times and hasn't always dealt well with the Knicks' traps, he's spent most of the series comfortably operating in "steady" to "sterling" territory, handing Indiana a victory in a matchup in which the Knicks were hoping they'd be able to take the check mark.
You've had the best coach in the series in Vogel, a man with enough confidence in his starting five, his defensive principles and the work his staff's put into ensuring execution to not bat an eye in the face of the Knicks' small lineups. He just told you to stick to what you do — shut down the rim, stay at home on shooters at the arc, contest everything, concede nothing and swarm the glass like your lives depend on it — and let the rest work itself out. His faith has been rewarded; one questionable timeout aside, he's had the steadier hand this series, and it's resulted in you having the upper hand heading back to Madison Square Garden on Thursday.
With the exception of about 10 minutes late in Game 2, you've had the better of everything. It hasn't been perfect, as some of those turnovers and missed shots can attest; it hasn't been extraordinary, in the same way that your 49-win regular season and No. 1 overall defensive efficiency ranking weren't "extraordinary." It's been consistent, clinical, professional and brutal — it's felt downright machine-like, really.
So leave the quest for perfection and transcendence to somebody else. Just show up at the Garden ready to punch a bunch of Manhattanites in the face. That's who you are; if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
(It's nice of you to be so respectful, though. Clearly, you were raised right.)