Indiana and New York just can’t stop contrasting each other as they head into Game 3

It’s as if the second round pairing between the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks couldn’t be any more mismatched. New York City’s population tops the entire state of Indiana by over two million people. The Pacers work as a tough, unshowy defensive-minded outfit that doesn’t even bother to make its mark with flashy things like big blocks and quick steals. The Knicks focus on movement and long range accuracy at their best, and “look at me”-styled isolation feats of daring in its lower moments. The Knicks are full of veteran players who performed some of their best NBA work back when the league was on NBC. The Pacers’ most recognizable player is best known for his work on an NBC sitcom that eked (fabulously, I should add) its way to a sixth season.

We get it, Obvious Storyline Guy, the Pacers and Knicks are total opposites. And as the series shifts to a best-of five with three potential games taking place in Indiana starting in Saturday’s Game 3, one other stark difference is about to take center stage. The Pacers may have blown their best chance in Game 2 at extending to a 2-0 series lead when it went to its bench in third quarter, most infamously when Indiana coach went with the hard-working forward Jeff Pendergraph for one short stint. Pendergraph somehow chalked up a plus/minus of -5 in just 74 seconds of play, as New York began to pull away to eventually blow out the Pacers in the win.

Now, the deeper Knicks may be getting an unexpected bon mot in the form of former All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire, who has been cleared to play 10-15 minutes on Saturday, his first action in over two months. Stoudemire has worked his way through two frustrating, injury-plagued years as New York’s hoped-for second option next to Carmelo Anthony, but in this scenario he’ll be working as a go-to bench scorer working up against a Pacers pine unit featuring types like, well, Jeff Pendergraph.

And it may not even take Stoudemire’s possible game-changing presence to influence Pacer coach Frank Vogel into going heavy with his starters’ minutes with the series in Indiana.

As a reaction to what was a relatively speedy first round, the Pacers and Knicks had three full days off between Games 2 and 3. This could allow for plenty of extra on-court time for a lineup in Roy Hibbert, David West, Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill that has logged the most on-court minutes of any NBA lineup during the regular and postseason. That time “off” could not have come at a better time for Indiana. Scope out what’s John Schuhmann pointed out on Thursday, regarding the significant Pacer starter-to-bench drop off:

It was a plus-48 in the first round and a plus-5 in both Games 1 and 2 of the conference semifinals. The problem, of course, is that the Indiana bench stinks. In 216 minutes, all other Pacers lineups have scored 93.1 points per 100 possessions and allowed 105.8, for a NetRtg of -12.7 in the postseason.

Mind you, those terrible numbers were mostly cooked up while the Pacer reserves played against the reserves of the Hawks and Knicks. The Pacers match up expertly with New York’s starters, but if the Indy bench is working at a D-League level in its short bursts, even a so-so showing from Stoudemire and the Knicks’ bench could be enough to steal a win in Indianapolis and make the home court advantage New York’s all over again.

The Knick reserves will have an advantage over their Indiana counterparts even if Kenyon Martin clashes with Stoudemire off the bench, or if J.R. Smith continues his terrible shooting marks. Smith is 15-57 from the floor since returning from a one-game suspension four games ago, and word leaked on Saturday that Smith could miss Game 3 after missing New York’s morning shootaround with a fever. It’s possible that Smith’s stomach didn’t take too well to a Steak N’ Shake frisco melt. It’s felled many a man in the heartland.

After a few games in the wilderness – dropping two to the Boston Celtics, barely pulling out a Game 6 win, losing the series opener – the Knicks have their confidence back. They may not have their Sixth Man of the Year back, but they really haven’t had him for all of May. And now Amar’e Stoudemire, and his fabulous touch, is back to see what’s left.

Indiana doesn’t have many counters wearing warm-ups on the sideline. The NBA’s most-used lineup is going to look awfully familiar to us by the time this series shifts back to New York.

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