The State of the Pacers and Knicks is tough to ascertain. All season long, they were the second- and third-best best teams in the Eastern Conference. With all due respect to the Nets (which after last night, really isn’t much), there was never a time when any of Brooklyn, Chicago, Atlanta or Boston looked like they were in the same weight class as Indiana and New York.
To start the year, the New York boys were superior.
They began the season looking like the 1970 Knicks re-incarnated, smoking all comers. They won their first six games (including victories over Miami and in San Antonio), and raced out to an 18-5 record (10-0 at home) by December 15. At the time, they were hitting an outlandish 41.0% of their threes while taking more than 29 per game and scoring at a rate of 111 points per 100 possessions.
It was madness. People were talking about Carmelo for MVP.
Meanwhile, the Pacers sucked.
Danny Granger was a last-minute scratch (to the public anyway) from the roster, and the newly anointed young leaders of the team were playing like dirt. Roy Hibbert, fresh off a huge summer payday, couldn’t make a shot. Paul George was dribbling around in pick-and-rolls like a baby deer learning to walk, trying to split double teams that he couldn’t split, turning the ball over carelessly and throwing passes into the stands.
The Pacers were losing to teams like the Bobcats, Raptors and Timberwolves while barely getting by the Kings and Wizards.
Then the roles reversed somewhat.
New York lost on Christmas then lost Raymond Felton to injury. It changed the whole dynamic of their offense. When Amar’e Stoudemire returned, playing his first game on New Year’s Day, the team’s on-court identity changed even further. New York went 16-12 in the 28 games Stoudemire played.
He wasn’t the sole cause (Ray’s injury was huge, their earlier play was unsustainable, Carmelo cooled off, etc., etc…), but it was a long stretch when a juggernaut turned into just another pretty-good team. The team’s fans and analysts started to doubt whether this team could hang with the conference’s best.
Which at the time were the Heat, obviously, and … the Pacers.
As New York fell, the Pacers — and especially Paul George — started putting it all together. Their defense became historically great, and there wasn’t a team in the league that could dominate them. Indiana was essentially in every game, as points were hard to come by and they subjected the opposition to a grinding, disciplined defensive philosophy that no team enjoyed playing against.
It was incredibly impressive to watch.
In the midst of watching the Pacers play three or four times per week, I would watch many other NBA teams play. They just looked different. I would forget just how excellent Indiana’s defense was until watching other teams haplessly stand around while the other teams scored easy points and made open jumpers. That stuff just didn’t happen against Indiana.
The most glaring difference: Essentially every other team in the NBA always seemed to have at least one guy on defense who was clearly concerned about being in the right place, looking back and forth between the ball and his man and shuffling around as he remembered where precisely he should be standing as the offense moved the ball.
This never happens with the Pacers. Not when the starters are on the court. They are all so seamlessly attached to one another and always racing through rotations in a calm, systematic way. There is no chaos; it just works, with wing players funneling penetrators into waiting, in-position interior barricades and shooters rarely finding themselves open for a catch-and-shoot jumper. Everything is contested. Everything is moved to where Indiana wants it to go. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a pro-active NBA defense, one that forces the opponent to take shots from where it want them to shoot (the mid-range).
By the end of March, however, the pendulum swung again.
Carmelo didn’t miss a shot for what seemed like weeks and the Pacers’ vaunted defense stopped working. It was late March/early April and Indiana appeared ready to coast into the playoffs while the Knicks were out to convince people — perhaps themselves most of all — that they were bound for the Eastern Conference Finals.
Who cares about the past though?
What does all this preamble mean?
Not much, other than to illustrate just how unsure we were all season about which team was better. All year, this is how the Eastern Conference looked, in a power-rankings sense:
New York Knicks Indiana Pacers New York Knicks Indiana Pacers
New York Knicks
There may have been some jockeying around among the lower seeds, and Brooklyn did look pretty darn good for a stretch, but there were clearly three tiers (waaaaay) below the Miami Heat; Indiana and New York were the only two members of tier two.
Again … Who cares about the past though?
Which team is better now?
Really, it’s tough to say. The consensus probably says New York. They looked better at the tail end of the regular season, they have the best player, and they jumped out to a 3-0 series lead on a wily Celtics team while the Pacers faced the possibility of losing in the first round after watching the Hawks dominante them for two games in Atlanta to even the series at 2-2.
Still, both teams have a great strength amid many flaws, and it’s fitting that each closed out their first-round opponents by racing out to a huge lead in their final games and then holding on for dear life as it evaporated.
Both teams are incredible and very hard to beat when they play up to their potential.
But each is also capable of soiling their pants at a moment’s notice.
To help glean a little more insight, it might help to look at the two team’s numbers over different durations. Here is how they performed over the full regular season, the late regular season (March 1 through the start of the playoffs) and in the first round of the postseason.
By and large, it shows what we know: The Knicks are a uber-potent offense while the Pacers have an incredible defense.
Both teams’ inability to score successfully throughout the first-round also stands out, and Pacers fans should be encouraged that New York never scored more than 90 points against Boston. An inspired Kevin Garnett was a big factor, and the Pacers don’t have a Hall of Famer on their roster. But while the Celtics played the NBA’s sixth-best defense this season, allowing just 100.4 points per 100 possessions, they weren’t on the Pacers historically elite level of 96.4 points per 100.
In short, there are ways to slow down New York, and Boston found them at times.
It wasn’t enough, but it might help provide a model for Frank Vogel to follow.
I won’t bother to get into the numbers any more. They are fairly self-explanatory, showing how the Pacers offense improved over the course of the season while it’s defense let up. The Knicks, on the other hand, were closer to who they were all season long at the end of the year. The only other thing worth really digging into is the Pacers’ late-season defensive swoon.
Here is a game-log look at how they fell off.
Pay particular attention to the April games. When you are an elite defense, and you start giving up that many points to teams like the Suns and Wizards, it is likely indicative of a personnel issue, not a system problem. In short, they let up a little bit.
It’s understandable; the Pacers starters had an incredible burden to carry this team all year, considering just how bad the bench has been by and large. George Hill also had some hip and leg issues that caused him to be a less-effective defender in the pick-and-roll. But more than anything, it seemed like the team was just letting up a little bit, knowing that they were basically locked into a high seed that would give them a decent shot to make the Eastern Conference Finals.
Is that really worth worrying about?
It looked to creep back into the fray during Games 3 and 4 against Atlanta. Then again, their defensive performance in Game 6, in Atlanta, was suffocating. They ratcheted it up in the third quarter and completely took the game over.
The heights of the defense haven’t gone anywhere; the Pacers have just been a little selective over the past month as to when they apply it. That isn’t a luxury they will have against New York, but they should know that. For Indiana, that will likely be the biggest question of the series: Can they return to playing their brand of defense for 48 minutes each night?
When they do, they are an elite team. When they don’t, they are an NBA team.
For New York, the ebbs and flows of their season were less about major statistical deviations and more about the manner of play. They stopped being elite when they got away from the virtuoso style of ball movement they showed early in the year, and became top-notch again when they re-found that ability and Carmelo took it to another level.
If we get back to the original question (where do these teams stand — which team is better?), my only answer is: I don’t know. It’s very close. They are both unreal one moment and maddeningly bad the next. Both seem to be front-runners, playing great ball when everything starts going their way, but surrendering 15-2 runs when they lose their strategic tack for stretches — something both do often.
To those who have asked me to predict the outcome, I have picked the Pacers.
I’m not super-confident about that. But it seems just as likely as the alternative. I could see the Knicks winning the first two at home and then taking Game 4 in Indiana and closing it out in five. But I could just as easily see the Pacers winning this afternoon, taking care of home court and then returning to New York with a 3-1 lead. Or it might be 2-2 headed back to Gotham with each team holding serve.
It’s almost impossible to predict.
Because of teams involved.
Each has a very-well-defined identity, but it isn’t one they always stick to. If either veers too far off course, that could be their demise. Ultimately, that will be the battle: Which team adhere to its identity most often? Which team can be its best self?
I find it hard to believe that anyone who watched either of these teams all season can confidently answer that question.
So here we have it: The Pacers and the Knicks — the second- and third-best teams in the East (in some order) — battling for the right to take a shot at the reigning champs, which feature the one player in the NBA with no equal.
Nobody has any idea what will happen.
It should be a grimy, entertaining series.
Welcome back to the 1990s, everyone.