New York fails to stand up to Indiana’s defensive mettle, falls behind 2-1 in their series

INDIANAPOLIS – This is the seventh time that the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks have faced off in a playoff series, and in each of the previous matchups the sporting world was treated to tough, defensive-minded basketball that was occasionally difficult to watch. Toss Saturday night’s Game 3 between the Knicks and Pacers into that time capsule, because the two squads managed to test the patience of even the most hardened NBA postseason fans with this clutch and grab session. The Pacers prevailed by an 82-71 score, but not before treating a nationally televised audience to basketball that seemed like it should have been interspaced with Chandler Bing sightings in the advertising bumpers.

The most recent version of the New York Knicks never seemed to fancy itself as a defense-heavy-outfit, not with pointed acquisitions to acquire the likes of Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Raymond Felton on their ledger over the last three seasons. Still, the team at least hoped to retain some sort of defensive presence in the postseason due to the participation of 2011-12 Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler in the rotation. Chandler’s ongoing back issues, however, appear to be limiting the presence of the once-dominant defender. And though New York held Indiana to 82 points in the Game 3 loss, that seemed to have more to do with Indiana’s inability to string a hot offensive quarter together, and not New York’s sterling D.

And it certainly wasn’t due to the presence of Chandler. The Knick center seemed dwarfed by Pacer big man Roy Hibbert all evening, and though Tyson’s end-game averages of nine points, three blocks and five fouls in just under 30 minutes were somewhat respectable, he paled in comparison to his Pacer counterpart, as Hibbert tossed in 24 points and 12 rebounds.

More surprising, considering Chandler’s injury history, was Hibbert’s minutes allotment on the night. The Pacers may have let Game 2 slip away by giving Hibbert a brief rest in a game-changing third quarter, and the team was determine to get as much as it could out of their go-to big man. Hibbert played over 40 minutes for the first time all season, and he’s logged over 35 minutes in five consecutive games. His top two streaks prior to this, in 2012-13, topped off at three and two 35-minute games in a row. This is unprecedented stuff for the Pacer pivot, and Indiana coach Frank Vogel was quick to credit Hibbert’s confidence following the win.

Indiana made a point early on to feature both Hibbert and David West in their offense, going to the pair repeatedly down low for a series of good looks. West and Hibbert reacted well, but both former All-Stars will probably not be as enthused upon watching the game tape – Hibbert had several chippies off of offensive rebounds that he watched spin out, while West had several good looks in the paint that he could not connect on. Indiana missed 26 of 37 shots in the paint on the night, a rough game’s work for Indiana, but a far more damning statistical end for a Knicks team that needs all the help it can get defensively.

An 11-point conquest in a defensive-minded struggle is worth its weight in (blue and Pacer) gold, but Indiana would like a few of those chances back. The Knicks failed to close out on both perimeter and interior looks all night, and yet Indiana could not seem to put the Knicks away. Though Indiana led by as many as 16 in the third quarter, New York afforded them several opportunities to turn this game into a blowout – as West, Hibbert, D.J. Augustin, and Paul George (who missed 10 of 12 three-pointers, 13 of 17 shots overall) all had their chances to turn this into a blowout.

Indiana got to this point by chasing New York out of its three-point heavy attack. The Knicks missed eight of 11 on the evening, frustrating enough, but the 11 attempts (even in a low possession game) are not enough for a Knicks team that needs the bomb to help surround Carmelo Anthony’s interior game. Anthony eked out 21 points on 16 shots in the loss (though he whiffed on the glass, pulling in just five boards despite starting at power forward), but New York’s effort to free the league’s leading scorer played into Indiana’s hands – the shot clock ticked away, and New York’s three-point options dwindled as a result. Nearly as bad was the interior finishing of starting guards Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni. Both combined to miss 10 of 11 shots, with Felton taking until the 9:46 mark of the fourth quarter to knock in New York’s lone starting backcourt field goal.

The return of Amar’e Stoudemire also gave New York little satisfaction. Stoudemire, who was cleared earlier in the week to play his first game in over two months, missed five of eight shots and did not pick up a defensive rebound in nearly nine minutes of play. The Knicks had to go to a zone defense to help mask Stoudemire’s defensive deficiencies in the second quarter, and his presence probably left some New York fans wondering if one-time Knicks sparkplug Chris Copeland (who played fewer than two minutes of garbage time) wasn’t best served to contribute in the Knicks rotation.

New York’s backs aren’t against the wall. A 2-1 series deficit against a Pacer team that struggles mightily to score is not the end of its particular world, and Indiana’s offensive woes (as highlighted in even their finest moments on Saturday night) could ease New York into its first Eastern Conference in 13 years, but the team badly needs to find a counter defensively in order to keep pace with a Pacer team that held the NBA to the fewest points per possession in 2012-13.

This is what the Pacers do, and have done for years dating back to their halcyon days of the 1990s. New York – quickly, in a New York minute – needs to find a way to match Indiana’s throwback ways.

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