This is not a series for floral print jackets, capri pants or lens-less glasses, and it certainly is not a series for monocles.
There is nothing cool or fashionable about what the Pacers are doing to the Knicks. In the fourth quarter of Game 4 on Tuesday, with the Pacers building their lead in what would become a 93-82 victory to take a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Lance Stephenson drained a 3-pointer and commenced some sort of growling, flexed-muscle conniption. Whatever it was meant to be, it looked out of place. That sort of preening is not the Pacers, typically, and it is not how they have dominated the Knicks thus far.
With the Knicks now one game from elimination, it has become clear that for all their talent, they have difficulty enforcing their style of play on opponents. It was a struggle for them in their opening-round series against the Celtics — which they barely survived — and it has become a crisis in the second round. The Pacers have imposed their identity on the series. Game 4 made that as brutally clear as any of Indiana’s three wins.
The point total, of course, spoke for itself. Any time the winning team reaches 90 solely because its opponent had to resort to fouling in the final minutes, offense clearly is not the focal point. In a shooting contest, the Knicks win at least four out of seven times. They know this. Carmelo Anthony knows this. J.R. Smith knows this. The Pacers know this, too, but unlike New York, they are capable of doing something about it.
If you watch a lot of college games between mismatched programs, you are familiar with teams that will … just … not … shoot. They walk the ball up the court. They eat all 35 seconds before taking a shot. They defend and box out like demons, but they are also not afraid to commit a foul when necessary. They can make a 40-minute game feel like 40 hours.
The funny thing is, extending the game this way in real time actually shrinks it in game-clock time, and this is entirely by design. Asheville Polytechnic (a spunky little program in the Blue Ridge Mountains I just made up) knows that the more possessions it allows North Carolina to get, the more likely the Tar Heels’ superior talent will gradually begin to win out. While the talent disparity is not as great between the Pacers and Knicks, this series has demonstrated the same set of principles.
Smith missed seven of the 10 threes he took on Tuesday and his percentage actually went up to 28.3 percent. Anthony finished with a respectable line of 24 points on 9-for-23 shooting and 2-for-6 from three, but he missed every meaningful shot he took against Paul George‘s hounding defense. The Knicks had the fifth-best 3-point shooting percentage in the regular season and took the most threes of any team in the NBA this year, but the playoffs have been a different story. Only Steve Novak (who cannot get off the bench), Pablo Prigioni (who hardly played on Tuesday) and Iman Shumpert (who is dealing with knee soreness and went 0-for-5 from deep in Game 4) have shot 37 percent or better in the postseason.
This is about more than just Mike Woodson refusing to play his shooters, although that is a factor. It all starts with George cutting off Melo, the head of the snake. George Hill has challenged Raymond Felton, both offensively and defensively, as Avery Bradley and Jason Terry failed to do in the first round. Most significantly, Roy Hibbert and David West are creating the matchup problems Boston could not, forcing the Knicks to play undersized with Anthony defending one of the behemoths or to go against their nature and play two big men at a time to match Indiana’s size.
Increased size, when the Knicks have gone that route, has not made much difference at the defensive end, where the Knicks were marginally successful contesting shots but were helpless as the Pacers racked up 16 offensive rebounds and 19 second-chance points. On the offensive end, it has been an unmitigated disaster. With Kenyon Martin logging 29 minutes, Amar’e Stoudemire pitching in 11 minutes and Tyson Chandler continuing to play below his standards, the Knicks missed 56 of their 87 shots overall and 20 of their 28 threes.
So if the Knicks are getting trounced at both ends of the court, why did they only lose by 11 points in Game 4? How come their Game 1 win, which was generally considered an utterly dominant display, only came by seven points? That takes us back to shrinking the game. When the Pacers play their ugly, deliberate style, possessions are at a premium. A four-point edge for the league’s best defensive team is like a 10-point advantage for most other clubs. In other words, that 11-point disparity might as well be 30.
When Tyler Hansbrough is flopping around on defense or George spends more time rolling around on the hardwood than seems fit for a reigning NBA Most Improved Player, it might look like the Pacers are losing their footing. Do not be fooled. They live for referee confusion, loose balls and offensive rebounds leading to extended possessions. They are playing exactly the way they want to, and so far there is not much the Knicks can do about it.