(This is the first article for 8p9s written by Jonathan Washburn, who has previously written about the NBA at Midwest Sports Fans.)
Playoff basketball, as they say, is all about adjustments. As the national media frantically searches for justification as to why the Knicks can not only tie up the series tonight but also turn the tide in their favor, we are left to wonder the question, “Which adjustments really will be made that will be worth anything of consequence?”
A different rotation will not fix the Knicks’ problems down low as much as a different game plan.
After the Roy Hibbert-led monster performance by Indy’s bigs in Game 1, many people have wondered if a little more Kenyon Martin would help the Knicks as the series progresses. The reasoning seems sound — Martin will provide a much better counter to David West on defense, thus slowing down Indiana’s go-to guy while also lightening the defensive load on Carmelo Anthony.
The problem with giving Martin more minutes is that his presence cramps the spacing of a team that already struggles mightily at times to move the ball in a manner that would be necessary to unlock the Pacers’ stingy defense. The Pacers finished the 2013 season allowing just 99.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that was good for first in the league. Unlike other defensive stalwarts like Chicago and Boston, however, the Pacers reached this level of efficiency not by shoving countless defenders to the ball side at an almost comical level, but by simplifying things tremendously and trusting its great individual defenders.
Of course, this is not to say that Indiana fails to play defense as a team. On the contrary, their help defense is among the best in the NBA. But unlike Boston and Chicago – two defenses that can be unlocked provided the offense is patient enough to move the ball from side to side consistently, Indiana prides itself on almost never helping “too much.” Because Indiana can trust Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and George Hill to almost never get abused on the perimeter one-on-one, Roy Hibbert and David West can provide regular help without forcing the entire team to rotate in a hectic circle to cover their men. Pacers’ opponents, consequentially, always find space to be a premium.
It is this reason, among others, that has most adversely affected the Knicks’ three-point shooting against the Pacers this season. Even when the Knicks do garner decent looks, the Pacers’ long and athletic wings have been able to close faster than any team outside of South Beach. The addition of Martin to the Knicks’ lineup would dramatically cripple the Knicks’ floor-spacing and place even more pressure on Anthony to score efficiently against a back line that would be able to help even further off Chandler and Martin. Basically, the addition of Martin all but ensures that New York won’t be able to score unless the scoring champ returns to his form from late April — not impossible, of course, but a lot to ask against the best defense in the league.
Any defensive advantage gained from adding Martin into the mix would most likely be negated on the offensive end of the floor. Because of this, many have wondered if the return of Amar’e Stoudemire would solve the problem for the Knicks. The problem with Amar’e is two-fold. First, it’s impossible to say with any certainty that he’s any better of a defender than Carmelo Anthony — and that was when he was healthy. Second, while Stoudemire is a competent scorer, it’s often come at a huge expense — mainly that Anthony’s play often suffers alongside him. Stoudemire is a “ball stopper.” He also loves to operate from the high post near the wing, a spot on the floor very near Anthony’s favorite starting point himself. While Stoudemire’s shooting ability and athleticism would seem to open up the floor even more for the Knicks, the lack of ball movement has destroyed the Knicks’ spacing almost as much as inserting Kenyon Martin into the equation.
New York will not be able to swing the paint in their favor by changing their rotation.
However, the Knicks could definitely flip the script in Game 2 by simply committing to more dribble penetration.
This is much easier said than done against the rangy and athletic Pacers’ backcourt. Still, the Knicks met a modicum of success in the first half of Game 1 when Ray Felton and others relentlessly attacked the lane. If Hibbert, West, and the rest of Indy’s front court can defend the rim without fouling the way they did in the second half of Game 1, we can probably call this series right now. But the reality is that even though officials often “let the players play” a little more in the playoffs, it will be nearly impossible to reproduce the same performance again. New York needs to play the numbers — numbers that remind us that Hibbert only played an average of 29 minutes per game in the regular season, sometimes due to foul trouble. While Hibbert is one of the best rim protectors in the league, Indiana’s defense falls off when Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi, or Jeff Pendergraph takes his place. If Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Felton would commit to attacking the basket — even if their drives are repeatedly turned back in the first ten or fifteen minutes, it would almost certainly pay dividends as the game progresses.
(Now is where I will fight the urge to say anything about David Stern perhaps prompting the refs in MSG tonight to “even things out a little bit.” We all know that since Donaghy was indicted, that stuff never happens in the NBA anymore. Just know that when West and Hibbert are both on the bench with three fouls a mere four minutes into the second quarter, you were warned.)
Contrary to common thought, it’s unlikely that New York’s threes will just “start falling” because Indiana defends threes so well.
Another common theme in the media is that if New York just begins shooting better, this series will be entirely different. Without simply saying, “Well, duh … making shots is always a good thing,” let’s remember that New York wasn’t exactly missing wide-open shots that resulted from broken defenses in Game 1.
The Knicks made 891 three-pointers in 2012-13, a mark of over 10 a game that was more than any other team in the league. Ever. Never has a team made more three-pointers in a season than this year’s Knicks did.
What you may not have known was that the Pacers only surrendered 440 long-distance jumpers all year.
Because of the reasons outlined above, Indiana had particular success against the Knicks. It’s the classic case of strength vs. strength. And even if New York’s players were firing on all cylinders, it would be unlikely for them to equal their regular success from behind the arc, especially in the playoffs where the pace slows down and defenses lock up even more.
Unfortunately for New York, they aren’t firing on all cylinders. Steve Novak and his two three-pointers per game are currently on the sideline and even if he returns, he’s been almost a complete non-factor in the playoffs. (Plus, who is he guarding? The Pacers aren’t like most Eastern Conference teams – you can’t simply “hide” him on the opposing non-scoring or stretch power forward he’s matched up against. West and even Hansbrough would eat his lunch down low.)
Jason Kidd has been even worse, almost to the point that he’s looked terrified to shoot the last three playoff games. That’s a total of 3.3 three-pointers per game that the Knicks are missing right now. But worse than the absence of those made jumpers is the fact that once again, the Knicks find their floor spacing to be a severe problem. Just in case there wasn’t enough pressure on Carmelo to create offense by himself against the league’s best defense, the Knicks have seemingly been handicapped by injuries and a lack of confidence late in the season. It’s likely that the Knicks will only average six to eight three-pointers a game this series, and if that’s the case, the Pacers will be at a huge advantage.
While DJ Augustin was a revelation in Game 1, it’s more than likely that the Knicks’ bench, as banged up as it may be, will still outperform the Pacers’ bench for the rest of this series.
So then, if the Knicks can’t simply make an adjustment to the starting lineup or trust their jumpers to start falling, how can they regain control of the series? They need to exploit what has been the Pacers’ biggest weakness all year – their bench.
As the playoffs have progressed, Indiana coach Frank Vogel has (wisely) shortened his bench while riding his starters more than usual. In particular, West and Hibbert have seldom visited the bench at the same time in close games. As long as foul trouble remains a non-factor, the strategy will undoubtedly yield positive results for the Pacers long-term. Still, the complete and utter lack of production off the bench is a frightening probability for Pacers’ fans.
The Pacers were fortunate enough that DJ Augustin gift-wrapped 16 points for them in Game 1, but it would be foolish to expect that to happen again. Even with that breakout performance from Augustin, the Knicks’ bench outscored the Pacers’ 35-24. The best possible way for New York to turn the series will be to increase that bench margin.
The reality is that Indiana is somewhat of a bad matchup for the Knicks.
The Pacers’ size and athleticism enable them to bother Anthony more than any other team in the league. Even if Carmelo is able to score at his usual rate, it’s unlikely that he will be able to hold West under 20. If all else is equal, the Knicks’ bench simply has to find a way to crush their counterparts from Indiana.
Bench play, attacking off the dribble and game planning — more than any possible rotation shift or “shooting binge” — are the adjustments that the Knicks can make to affect this series the most.