NEW YORK — The Indiana Pacers aren’t nearly the best offensive team in the NBA. But they’re a lot better than the Boston Celtics, a painful lesson learned by the New York Knicks on Sunday.
Defense was the Pacers’ calling card this season. And behind the exceptional rim protection of Roy Hibbert, Indiana kept a great offensive team at bay in Game 1 of the conference semifinals. The Knicks shot just 12-for-28 in the restricted area as Hibbert blocked five shots and contested countless others.
But it was the other end of the floor that really determined the 102-95 outcome, giving the Pacers their first win at Madison Square Garden this season, as well as home-court advantage in this series.
The Knicks looked like a pretty good defensive team against the Celtics. They pressured Avery Bradley and swarmed Paul Pierce, and there was nothing that Boston could really do about it, because they didn’t have anyone who could create shots or make something out of nothing.
The Pacers have that. They have Hibbert and David West in the post. They have George Hill in the pick-and-roll and Lance Stephenson on the break. And they have a jack-of-all-trades in Paul George. Throw in some hot shooting from D.J. Augustin (4-for-5 from 3-point range) and Indiana had six guys in double figures on Sunday, even though neither George (5-for-14) nor Hill (5-for-17) shot well.
It was a balanced attack in more ways than one, because there was no real offensive set or action from which Indiana got a lot of production. It was a real mixed bag of early offense, pick-and-rolls, post-ups, random plays made late in the shot clock, and second-chance points.
“If you’re going to score the ball offensively in the playoffs, especially in an environment like this, teams are going to take away your first option, your second option,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said afterward. “Random action is a huge, huge part of playoff basketball on the offensive end. And our guys did a great job of just playing the game.”
After some early struggles (10 points on their first 15 possessions), it was a couple of offensive rebounds (from Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough) that produced five second chance points and got the Pacers going. And it was in the second quarter when they hit their stride, scoring 30 points on just 20 possessions and turning a seven-point deficit into a six-point lead that they continued to build on in the second half.
The Pacers’ spacing was good, they shared the ball, and they didn’t force anything. They played smart. They had 16 turnovers, but only four of them were live balls, keeping the Knicks from getting out in transition.
“I thought we didn’t have a careless turnover,” West said. “We took our time tonight. I thought guys did a good job of putting them on their heels, attacking and being aggressive.”
The Knicks weren’t awful defensively (meaning that they weren’t nearly as bad as the Nets were in the first half on Saturday night), but going from the Celtics to the Pacers (or any other team, really) is an adjustment. New York tried applying pressure on the ball like they did against Boston, but unlike the Celtics, the Pacers have real NBA point guards who are able to handle that pressure, as well as more guys who can make plays once the defense is compromised.
So the Knicks have some things to figure out. Because the Pacers scored from all directions, there’s no obvious defensive adjustments to make. They may just have to work harder and longer defensively.
You can point to the offense and that Carmelo Anthony (10-for-28) and J.R. Smith (4-for-15) shot a combined 33 percent. And make no mistake about it, the efficiency at which the Knicks were scoring at the end of the regular season has been completely lost.
But with Hibbert staying back to protect the rim, Raymond Felton was again productive in the pick-and-roll on Sunday. Overall, the Knicks did score 95 points on 90 possessions, a solid output in a playoff game against the league’s top defense.
The Knicks themselves ranked 16th defensively this season. They looked much better in the first round, but if Game 1 of this series is any indication, that was more about the Celtics than the Knicks.