- Series hub: Knicks-Pacers
INDIANAPOLIS — Knicks-Pacers isn’t just a series between a great offensive team (New York) and a great defensive team (Indiana). It’s also a contrast in two different defensive styles, and that contrast is a big reason the Pacers have a 2-1 series lead heading into Game 4 on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, TNT).
The Knicks, who set an NBA record with 2,371 3-point attempts (28.9 per game) this season, took just 11 threes in Game 3, their worst offensive game of the playoffs. Both coach Mike Woodson and center Tyson Chandler talked a lot on Sunday about the need to move the ball more, but the Pacers’ defense had a lot to do with the lack of ball movement and open shots.
The Pacers led the league in 3-point percentage defense and only one team (Chicago) allowed their opponents to take a lower percentage of their shots from beyond the arc. The Knicks have made five or fewer threes seven times this season. They’re 0-7 in those games and three of them were against Indiana.
The key to the Pacers’ 3-point defense is their ability to stay at home on shooters. The Knicks get 3-point attempts by drawing an extra defender to the guy with the ball, whether he’s in the post or running a pick-and-roll, and then moving the ball to the open shooter. The Pacers make that difficult by not sending the extra defender, either as a double-team in the post or as a helper on the pick-and-roll.
The two most important players in this scheme are Paul George and Roy Hibbert, the one-on-one defender and the rim-protector.
In this series, George has the Carmelo Anthony assignment, and he needs no help. Anthony will get his points, but George is a good enough defender to make it difficult (Anthony has shot 39.7 percent in six games against the Pacers this season) and, more important, he allows his teammates to stay with their man. That’s a huge part of the Pacers’ success and an argument for George as their most important player in this series, even though his box score numbers (17.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, 36 percent shooting) haven’t been that impressive.
Here’s a post-up for Anthony from the first quarter of Game 3. George handles the assignment by himself and his teammates stay at home, giving Anthony little choice but to force a tough turnaround jumper …
Hibbert, of course, is the guy keeping the Knicks away from the basket. On pick-and-rolls, he has the length and smarts to both stay within reach of the roll man and challenge the ball handler if he gets too close to the rim. This is why 16 of Raymond Felton‘s 29 shots in the series have been low-efficiency attempts, coming from outside the restricted area and from inside the 3-point line.
So while the Knicks can talk about better ball movement, it’s easier said than done against the No. 1 defense. Here’s an example of a play where the ball moves quite a bit (four passes in about six seconds), it gets swung to the weak side, and the Knicks still aren’t able to get an open look. The Pacers all stay at home on their man, Hibbert hangs in the paint on the Jason Kidd/Kenyon Martin pick-and-roll, George denies Anthony in the post, and the ball eventually sticks in the hands of Iman Shumpert, who forces a tough shot over Hibbert in the lane…
The Knicks had their best offensive performance of the postseason in Game 2, and Woodson believes that they just need to get back to the way they played in their 105-79 victory.
“In a playoff series, when teams start locking in, you can’t play on one side of the floor,” the coach said Sunday. “That’s what, last night, we went back to that again. So I got to keep screaming and pushing and guys got to recognize that we got to get the ball moving from side to side. That’s the only way we can play and perhaps get out of this series. We can’t just play on one side of the floor with it.”
But the Pacers believe that those 105 points in Game 2 were more about the way they were defending than about what the Knicks were doing offensively.
“I thought we over-helped a little bit,” David West said after shootaround on Saturday, “overreacted to some of their penetration, and allowed them to get some easy, catch-and-shoot threes. We can’t overreact. We’re a help-defense team, but obviously guys got to guard their guy and we got to let the two guys in the pick-and-roll take care of their business in the pick-and-roll.”
Paying the price for help
On the other end of the floor, the Pacers attempted a season-high 33 threes in Game 3, and coach Frank Vogel said that most of them were good looks. The one issue was that George shot 2-for-12 from beyond the arc, probably because he was working so hard on defense.
Indy got open 3-point looks because the Knicks do send double-teams on post-ups and do help on pick-and-rolls. Here’s a perfect example, where Kidd sinks deep into the paint on a George/West pick-and-roll, Shumpert rotates up on the next pass, and Lance Stephenson is left wide open in the corner …
The Knicks ranked 17th defensively in the regular season. But the Pacers’ offense ranked 19th. So it’s not like this is a mismatch. The Knicks have the ability to stop Indiana.
They believe that the key is to play aggressive, because, as we saw in Game 2, the Pacers — who ranked 29th in turnover rate in the regular season — will cough the ball up if pressured. The problem is that, when they’re able to handle the pressure and get the ball to the weak side, they’re going to get better shots than the Knicks are getting.
Also, the more the Knicks rotate, the more susceptible they are to offensive rebounds. Indiana has totaled 29 offensive boards and 40 second-chance points in their two wins.
“We’re built on getting shots on the second side,” West said. “So when they bring two to the ball, we got to move the ball and make them pay on the other side.”
More Melo with the ball
The Pacers need to take care of the ball and the Knicks need to keep them off the offensive glass. But the Knicks’ offense is obviously the story here. It ranked third offensively in the regular season and now ranks 12th in the playoffs.
Woodson hinted Sunday that we will see more of Anthony as the pick-and-roll ball-handler in Game 4, as a way to challenge the way the Pacers are defending. Anthony with the ball is obviously more potent and dangerous than Felton or Pablo Prigioni, and setting ball-screens for him can free him from George.
“We’re going to have to change up a little bit,” Woodson said, “where he’s handling and running some pick-and-rolls with the 3-5, if George is going to guard him.”
The Knicks used Anthony as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll a decent amount in the two games in New York. And they got some good looks out of it early in Game 2. In fact, they ran Anthony/Chandler pick-and-rolls on four straight possessions late in the first quarter and got four good shots out of it (though the last one was a bit rushed) …
On the first play, West leaves Kidd open in the corner, because hey, that’s Anthony coming off that screen, not Felton. And on the third play, J.R. Smith gets open in the corner because Stephenson has a tendency to turn his head and lose his man.
Pace to get space
The last shot from Anthony in the sequence above came in transition. And that was another of Woodson’s points of emphasis on Sunday.
“We got to pick our pace up a little bit and not walk it up as much, because we’re doing that,” he said. “When you get stops, you’ve got to push the ball.”
One reason why the Pacers have been crashing the boards so well is that the Knicks aren’t really a threat to run. New York ranked 26th in pace in the regular season and got just 8.8 percent of their points on the break, the lowest rate in the league.
It always helps to get the ball up the floor quickly as it gives you more shot clock to work with and the opportunity to move the ball against an unset defense. If you’ve watched Anthony at all this season, you know he loves to pull up for threes in transition, with help from an early and high screen from Chandler or Martin.
Execution and player movement
Woodson says his team could have got better shots by executing better in Game 3. Too often, there was too much space between the ball-handler and screener, or the ball-handler just went away from the screen.
“If you don’t set a good screen and you don’t use the screen, then it becomes a one-on-one game,” Woodson said. “Everybody’s able to stay at home with each other, with their own individual matchups.”
And one other way the Knicks can get better shots is to move without the ball. It’s much easier for the Pacers to stay attached to their shooters when those shooters are just standing around.
Here’s a play where Smith got an open three on an Anthony post-up with the help of an off-ball screen by Chandler …
Now, that looked more like an impromptu decision by Chandler than a set play, but it’s certainly something the Knicks can do by design to free up their shooters against a defense that won’t otherwise leave them alone.