NEW YORK — Not long after Frank Vogel made his questionable decisions to call timeout and replace Roy Hibbert with Jeff Pendergraph in Game 2 of the conference semifinals on Tuesday, Mike Woodson made a critical call of his own.
In the final minute of the third quarter, with the Knicks still up just three, Woodson put Pablo Prigioni back on the floor.
Prigioni, a 35-year-old rookie, was a big key to the Knicks’ offensive resurgence and 16-2 finish to the season. What he lacks in obvious basketball talent, he makes up for with intelligence, a willingness to move the ball offensively and relentless, on-the-ball defense.
Damian Lillard was the Rookie of the Year, but Prigioni (who somehow didn’t get a single first, second or third-place vote) was the Plus-Minus Rookie of the Year, making a clear difference on both ends of the floor. New York was better both offensively and defensively when Prigioni was in the game in the regular season.
But he was in and out of the rotation until that final stretch. Woodson has never played Prigioni big minutes, even once he seemingly realized his value, obviously needing to find enough time for Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in the backcourt (1, 2 and 3 positions). But there were a couple of times in the first round where that may have hurt the Knicks.
In Game 5 against the Celtics, with the Knicks able to close out the series at home, Smith shot 3-for-14 while Prigioni sat on the bench for all but 13 minutes. The Knicks lost that game by six, but had outscored the Celtics by nine with Prigioni on the floor.
Then came Game 6 in Boston. The Knicks were up 26 points when Woodson replaced Prigioni with Smith with 9:43 to go in the fourth quarter. Coincidentally or not, the Celtics then went on a 20-0 run, putting a major scare in Woodson and most of New York City.
Woodson admits that Celtics run was on his mind four nights later.
“I didn’t forget Game 6 in Boston,” he said afterward.
So, just 13 seconds after replacing Felton with Shumpert, he sat Shumpert back down and brought back Prigioni, perhaps to match up with the quickness of D.J. Augustin, who had just checked in for Indiana, or perhaps to get back to a two-point guard lineup (Kidd was also on the floor).
Whatever the reason, the results were good. Prigioni helped the Knicks turn their three-point lead into an incredible 30-point cushion before the Pacers made a single shot from the field.
With the Knicks up six to start the fourth quarter, Prigioni made Roy Hibbert pay for not defending him on two straight pick-and-rolls with Tyson Chandler. First he stepped into a 3-pointer, and then he got to the foul line and stroked a 15-foot floater.
After a timeout, Prigioni grabbed a defensive rebound. And by the time the Knicks got the ball back up the floor, the Madison Square Garden was chanting, “PAB-LO! PAB-LO! PAB-LO!” The guy most of the crowd had probably never heard of back in November was now a playoff hero.
“It was amazing for me,” Prigioni said of the response from the crowd, “but for me it is only about the team. I am really happy. You can’t believe how happy I am because the team played well.”
Prigioni picked up another rebound, three assists and a block (a block!) by the time the Knicks’ 36-4 run was over. It was obviously huge that Carmelo Anthony found an offensive rhythm for the first time in five games and the Knicks’ tear was a total team effort. But it’s probably not a coincidence that Prigioni (who set a key screen on one of Anthony’s jumpers and set him up for another) was on the floor for most of it.
Prigioni gets his team to move the ball and can make defenses pay if they don’t pay attention to him. With Kidd (0-for-13 over the last six games) struggling, a little offense from the other 35-plus point guard is all the more critical.
Prigioni’s on-off-court differential has more than doubled in the playoffs. Over their eight postseason games, the Knicks have been much, much better with him on the floor in the playoffs. Like, really, a lot better …
Knicks efficiency with Prigioni on and off the floor, playoffs
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
At this point, it’s hard to argue with the numbers. And it’s clear that Woodson knows not to make the same mistake he made against the Celtics. If the Knicks are going to win this series, Prigioni is going to play a role.
“This was a big game for our ball club that we had to win,” Woodson said Tuesday. “I had flashbacks of Boston. I went with him and he came up big.”