The Pacers must avoid the temptation to make complicated adjustments to confront the Knicks half-court pressure, instead relying on simplicity.
At one point in the fourth quarter of Game 2, I was praying for Reggie Miller to come walking through that door, up the tunnel, and onto the court for the Pacers. Unfortunately, he was already in the building, announcing in his suit and tie while trying to sound unbiased.
The game was great — for 34 minutes — and then the Pacers were run off the court. How did this happen? Was this a fluke or a preview of things to come? Did Frank Vogel really get out-coached that severely by Mike Woodson?
The key is to not get carried away by 14 bad minutes of play (and by bad, I mean absolutely atrocious basketball that made me ponder some recent life decisions). New York did make some adjustments from Game 1, but it didn’t really change all that much offensively.
Fans fearing a possible three-point barrage from the Knicks should note that, until garbage time, New York didn’t shoot any better from long range. In fact, after making just 7-of-19 outside jumpers in Game 1, the Knicks had only connected on 7-of-24 three-pointers in Game 2 before Frank Vogel called off the dogs with about six minutes left. (For the game, the Knicks still only made 10-of-30 from long distance, good for 33%, which is definitely a manageable rate for the Pacers to overcome.)
The Knicks did attack the basket more.
The Knicks attempted 35 shots in the lane in Game 2, a total of seven more attempts than they had in Game 1. But four of those shots were attempted in the final two minutes as well. In addition, the Knicks only got to the free-throw line 10 times in Game 2, down 13 attempts from their total of 23 in the Game 1.
All things considered, the Knicks didn’t seem to place any higher of a priority on attacking the basket in Game 2 than they did in Game 1.
What the Knicks did do better in Game 2 was convert on those shots in the paint. After shooting an abysmal 13-of-28 from the lane on Sunday afternoon, the Knicks connected on 23 of their 35 attemptsTuesday night. A 20% increase in field-goal percentage from around the basket definitely attributed to the Knicks’ success in Game 2.
Especially improved was Carmelo Anthony, who shot 50% from the field after going 10-for-28 in Game 1. Still, he was not that successful in the lane around Indiana’s bigs, shooting only 4-of-11 inside. His real improvement was on jump shots, where he improved to 9-of-15. The reality is that Carmelo is one of the best scorers in basketball, and there’s not a lot any team can do to make him shoot poorly. The Pacers and Paul George defend him better than most, but players like Anthony really only stop themselves. Either Carmelo makes the well-defended 18-footer or he misses it; as good as George may be defensively, he will often have little say in the end result against a player like Anthony.
Ultimately, the Knicks really didn’t flip the script of Game 2 so dramatically by making any substantial changes on offense. They moved the ball a little more quickly, Carmelo made a few more jumpers, and they shot better around the basket. Despite all that, the Pacers still played good enough defense to win the game.
The real problem facing the Pacers for the rest of the series come on the offensive end of the floor.
As I wrote after Game 1, the Knicks would not be able to defend David West and Roy Hibbert more effectively by simply substituting Kenyon Martin or other bigs into the game. Whatever advantage might be gained defensively, the offensive disadvantages would most likely make such a rotation less effective. In fact, Kenyon Martin actually played fewer minutes in Game 2 than he did on Sunday afternoon (18 to 25 to be exact). If anything, New York seemed to commit to playing more small ball in Game 2 than it had played in Game 1. It was a change in defensive philosophy, rather than a change in the defensive rotation, that was so effective against the Pacers.
There are three defensive philosophies teams typically deploy to slow down effective post play: outstanding individual defense (think Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, or Joakim Noah), intelligent team defense (mixing up double-teams, overloading the ball-side of the floor, etc.), or denying the supply (what the Knicks did so well last night).
In Game 1, the Pacers wore the Knicks down with repeated post ups by West and Hibbert while mixing in effective dribble drives from George, George Hill, and Lance Stephenson. After shooting 10-of-18 in the paint in the first half, the Pacers finished 23-of-36 while shoving the Knicks around in the process.
Despite the early first-half deficit, Game 2 seemed to be going according to plan.
The Pacers made 14 of their 19 first-half shots in the lane, and were shooting 19-of-27 at the 5:00 mark of the third quarter. Then, New York’s guards kicked up the pressure, the Knicks changed their philosophy, and the Pacers stopped getting the ball inside. Over the last 17 minutes of action, the Pacers only attempted three shots in the lane, missing all of them.
Did the Pacers suddenly lose sight of their objective?
Did West and Hibbert “go soft”?
Did Frank Vogel get out-coached?
Yes, no, and yes.
It wasn’t that the Pacers deliberately stopped forcing the ball inside. Rather, they weren’t able to get the ball inside. Instead of going big, the Knicks ended the third quarter playing super small, with a Martin/Anthony/J.R. Smith/Jason Kidd/Raymond Felton combo. These five matched up against the Pacers starting lineup (with two terrible Jeff Pendergraph minutes thrown in for good measure) and began hounding the Pacers’ perimeter players. While Indiana stayed in its basic offense, trying to set high screens and move the ball, New York started trapping like crazy, trusting this quicker lineup to be able to rotate in time.
It worked like a charm.
Of course, we all remember Hill getting trapped near half-court, falling to the ground, and Martin finishing the break with a monster alley-oop off the glass. But Paul George and Stephenson were equally as sloppy with the ball. The Pacers turned the ball over four times in the last four minutes of the third quarter as the Knicks stretched their lead. Then, as the Knicks continued to pressure the Indiana back court, the Pacers started settling for long jumpers and simply stopped going inside.
Tn the process, they negated their biggest advantage in the series.
It was a brilliant move by Woodson — choosing to ignore the press’s assertions that he must match Indy’s size and instead attacking one of Indiana’s biggest weaknesses — it’s lack of a true point guard or high-level entry passers. The conclusion is pretty simple: Vogel was out-coached in Game 2 on Indiana’s offensive end of the floor.
So what can the Pacers do to respond?
For one, they should stop setting so many high screens when New York goes super small. Most big men aren’t able to keep up with the Pacers’ quickness out on the floor while also respecting Hibbert/West’s mid-range jumper. But when Carmelo, Kenyon, or Kidd is involved in that screen action, the Pacers are playing into New York’s hands.
In all actuality, simplicity would probably suffice against the Knicks’ super-small lineup.
Hill is a capable point guard, but he will need more space to shake Felton up top, and the extra defender that the screener is bringing with him clogs the floor too much. The same can be said about both Paul George and Stephenson. It’s unlikely that J.R. Smith and Jason Kidd can guard either player individually, but it’s also clear that George and Stephenson are not yet masters of running the pick-and-roll themselves.
The solution is probably to run a lot more action away from the ball.
Paul George doesn’t need to find his inner Reggie Miller by winding around nine picks in a row, but getting him the ball in positions where he can start a live-drive — as Indiana often did all season long — will make him much more effective. West and Hibbert are both very effective screeners, and as is often the case, each player will find himself in great post position after setting a screen down low for one of the wings.
A more simple game plan is probably just what the doctor ordered for the Pacers to adjust to New York’s super-small lineup. More room up top for Hill to work, more movement on the wings for Stephenson and George to exploit their athleticism, and a committed effort to keep West and Hibbert close to the basket just might turn the tide again in Game 3.
At least, of course, until New York readjusts.
Playoff basketball — it’s a beautiful thing.
Follow Jon Washburn on Twitter at @jwtwitch.