NEW YORK — Playoff games are still 48 minutes long, so even in a slow-paced Eastern Conference game, each team gets the ball at least 85 times. Unless it’s late in the fourth quarter, it’s hard to point to any 98-second, five-possession sequence as being a real difference-maker … especially when the final margin is 26 points.
But it’s also hard not to point to Pacers coach Frank Vogel‘s decision to call a timeout and take Roy Hibbert out of the game with 3:05 left in the third quarter as one that might have killed Indiana’s chances of taking a commanding, let’s-go-home-and-finish-the-sweep, 2-0 lead in the conference semifinals.
After trailing the New York Knicks by as many as 13 points in the first half of Game 2 on Tuesday, the Pacers had fought back and taken a 64-62 lead. They had scored 22 points on their last 13 possessions, had just hit two open 3-pointers off dribble-penetration, and had just made a stop when Carmelo Anthony missed a catch-and-shoot 3-point attempt.
With Lance Stephenson dribbling up court, Vogel asked for time, a curious decision given the rhythm his team was in offensively. There would have been a TV timeout at the next dead ball, but the ball was live and everything was going right for the Pacers.
Once play resumed, everything went wrong. And it wasn’t just the offense that the timeout affected, because Vogel chose at that time to replace Hibbert, who had been protecting the rim so brilliantly, with Jeff Pendergraph, who had yet to play in the series.
On the first possession after the timeout, Paul George came off a screen but couldn’t handle George Hill‘s pass as he curled into the lane. On the other end of the floor, Anthony (originally guarded by Pendergraph) blew past West (who had switched on to him at the high post), and Hibbert wasn’t there to stop him, because Hibbert was on the bench. After West missed on a drive, Anthony again blew past him for an and-one dunk on Pendergraph’s head.
After the free throw, Pendergraph was whistled for an offensive foul while trying to set a screen. It was just five possessions, three for the Pacers and two for the Knicks, but it changed the game. Vogel quickly brought Hibbert back in, but it was too late. Momentum had swung and the Pacers couldn’t stop it.
They went an excruciating 12 minutes and 19 seconds without a basket, seemingly regressing all the way to November when they were playing the ugliest basketball in the league.
Energized, the Knicks increased their defensive pressure. On their heels, the Pacers couldn’t respond. They were rattled and they couldn’t get good, uncontested looks at the basket.
“We just stalled out,” David West said.
More important, they allowed a New York offense that had been stalled out for 4 1/2 games to catch fire. The Knicks shot 14-for-21 (3-for-5 from 3-point range) during that 12:19 stretch, blitzing the Pacers with a 36-4 run that evened the series as it heads to Indiana for Game 3 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
While Vogel’s timeout was certainly questioned at the time, it wasn’t necessarily an awful decision because the TV timeout was coming anyway and nobody could foretell what was coming once these teams took the floor again.
“I usually use that situation to put something in while we have the ball,” Vogel said.
Furthermore, Hibbert wasn’t going to play all 24 minutes of the second half. He had to come out at some point.
But the Pacers were in control of the game, the series and of Anthony. And then they weren’t.
Prior to the timeout, Anthony was mired in a brutal slump, having made just 42 (32 percent) of his previous 131 shots. After the timeout, he shot 6-for-8. He followed the layup and and-one dunk at the end of the third quarter with a jumper, two threes and another and-one in the lane early in the fourth.
It was as if a switch had been flipped, making him more confident and aggressive. Once he got going, his teammates followed suit.
“When shots go in, it eases up everything,” Anthony said afterward. “When shots are falling, the game is much easier for myself and everyone else out there on the court.”
Maybe ‘Melo finally finds his rhythm without Hibbert taking that quick rest. He was the league’s leading scorer and not even the league’s No. 1 defense can hold him down forever. The Knicks’ offense was a lot sharper in the first half on Tuesday than it was in Game 1.
And maybe the Pacers would have eventually hit an offensive skid whether Vogel called a timeout or not. They were a below-average offensive team in the regular season, they had already committed 15 turnovers by that 3:05 mark in the third. Plus, bench production has been a problem all year.
Maybe this series was destined to be 1-1. The Knicks were at home and obviously the more desperate team.