ATLANTA — Lance Stephenson was just a kid the last time the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks squared off in the playoffs. The Coney Island native barely remembers the infamous “Hicks vs. Knicks” battles and all of the drama that came along with those heated and physical contests that have an indelible place in the history of both franchises.
“I really can’t remember much other than Reggie Miller hitting big shots and changing the game around,” Stephenson, the Pacers’ shooting guard said before admitting that he rooted for a team on the opposite coast while growing up in Brooklyn. “I was like nine-years-old. I was a Lakers fan. I didn’t care about the Knicks. I was all Lakers. Magic Johnson, Shaq, Eddie Jones, Kobe [Bryant] with the fro.”
Stephenson and his Pacers will get a chance to write their open chapter in this storied rivalry, courtesy of their 81-73 Game 6 win over the Atlanta Hawks Friday night at Philips Arena. The Pacers chased away one ghost, snapping their 13-game losing streak to the Hawks in Atlanta, proving they can win in a hostile environment. They’ll chase another in their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup against the Knicks, winners in a series-clinching Game 6 of their own in Boston Friday night. Game 1 of that series is Sunday afternoon.
Stephenson and the Pacers can’t wait.
“It’s gonna be great, playing in front of my friends and family and in my hometown with the bright lights,” Stephenson said. “It’s gonna be great.”
It’s also going to be a completely different undertaking, dealing with the No. 2 seed Knicks and those raucous crowds, that arrive on time, at Madison Square Garden.
Let’s be real, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Jason Kidd and a much deeper and more seasoned Knicks team presents more significant challenges than a Hawks team that the Pacers should have handled in four or five games instead of six. The Pacers get just one day off between games. They flew straight from Atlanta to New York late Friday night and will have to use Saturday as a preparation day.
“This next round is going to be a totally different beast,” Pacers forward David West said. “We’re going to have to defend probably one of the best one-on-one players in the game [in Anthony]. They play small at times, too, so we know there will be some funky matchups but for the most part, we have to just concentrate on what we can control, our energy and effort and how we defend. But we have to be ready to go.”
The same way they were against the Hawks in the final two games of their first round series. After getting run off the floor here in Games 3 and 4, the Pacers went home and cleaned up a bit before Game 5. They showed up for Game 6 focused and ready to break down a Hawks team that seemed vulnerable from the start Friday night.
They led by as many as 19 points early, weathered the Hawks’ late run and put the finishing touches on the win with All-Star swingman Paul George scoring just four points on 2-for-10 shooting, both series lows). West and George Hill picked up the scoring slack, tying for game-high honors with 21 points each. Roy Hibbert added 17 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks. Stephenson chipped in with 11 rebounds of his own, eight points and six assists, helping the Pacers make the final push needed to finish off the Hawks.
The Pacers finally imposed their physical will on the Hawks, outrebounding them 53-35, long enough to break the Hawks down when it matter most, a strategy they’ll have to try to repeat against the Knicks.
“We finally got the monkey off our back in this building,” Hill said. “”It felt good tonight. We were more physical and made them take tough shots around us. We capitalized on the offensive end and made some shots, trying to get to the paint and playing inside-out. We’re happy but we have to get our hard hats back on with another game in 48 hours.”
A return to their defensive roots was the key to beating back the Hawks and will be the key against the Knicks, too.
“Our defense has been our identity all year,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “And that was the key to the last two victories. We held them to 33 percent shooting [Friday night]. We needed to guard the three[point line], we needed to guard them on the break and we needed to limit them to one shot and this was our best game in the series in doing those three things.”
The Knicks and Hawks operate in a similar fashion, albeit with much different personnel. Hawks coach Larry Drew was Knicks coach Mike Woodson‘s lead assistant for six years with these same Hawks before replacing Woodson three years ago. They share similar philosophies and similar schemes.
The Pacers split the regular season series with the Knicks with the home team winning all four games, same as they did with the Hawks. But the Knicks won’t be pushed around inside as easily as the Hawks were. The Hawks don’t have a defensive presence anything like Chandler or an enforcer like Kenyon Martin.
“Madison Square Garden is a place where you know it’s going to be crazy energy in there,” West said. “Obviously, they play well at home. We have to go in the memory bank and remember how we had some success against them during the [regular season]. It starts with Carmelo and keeping him and J.R. under control, to the extent you can control them. Our focus just has to be possession by possession, know their going to make runs, and we have to play to our advantage. Our defense is our strength and our ability to make it an ugly, grind-it-out game. And that’s what we’re looking forward to, a great series and a great Game 1.”
The Pacers passed the pre-test. They showed they could go on the road, in a tough environment and win a game when the crowd is against them and they don’t control the emotional momentum. There is confidence that is built under those circumstances, no matter who the opponent might be.
Again, the Knicks pose different challenges because they can play at different tempos, they have more than one or two players you have to worry about shooting from distance and they can spread the floor and isolate Anthony and Smith on basically anyone when they need to manufacture possessions and shots.
And they’ll have that crowd and the Garden, the same one Stephenson played in nearly a dozen times during his standout career at Brooklyn’s Lincoln High.
“I had a lot of big games at the Garden” Stephenson said and then smiled. “But this is just a regular game to me. We just have to go in there, limit our mistakes, play hard and try to get wins in their building.”