INDIANAPOLIS — One of the most interesting things about playoff basketball is a team changing gears and abandoning something — a lineup or a style of play — that worked all season because it’s outmatched in a series.
The New York Knicks went there in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday. And it didn’t work.
With his team down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers and shooting blanks offensively against the league’s best defense, Knicks coach Mike Woodson abandoned the starting lineup that had sparked the Knicks to 13 straight wins late in the season. It hadn’t performed poorly (plus-1 in 22 minutes) in the first two games of the series, but did struggle (minus-7 in 13 minutes) in Game 3. The new starting lineup, meanwhile, had never played together.
Woodson abandoned more than a lineup. He abandoned his team’s whole small-ball, two-point-guard, Melo-and-shooters mantra that was so critical to the Knicks’ success. Out was point guard Pablo Prigioni and in was big man Kenyon Martin, sliding Carmelo Anthony to small forward, where he had played just six minutes through the first three games.
It was a sign of desperation, and the hope was that an extra big on the floor would keep the Knicks from getting crushed on the boards like they did in Games 1 and 3. It would also allow them to run secondary pick-and-rolls (instead of isolations) on the weak side of the floor after the Pacers stopped the primary one.
The Knicks did run more pick-and-rolls, they ran more of them with Anthony as the ball handler, and they got the ball up the floor and into their offense more quickly. But the result — a 93-82 Indiana victory — was basically the same as Game 3 three nights earlier. New York got off to a slow start, trailed by 14 at halftime, shot 36 percent, scored less than a point per possession and got crushed on the glass again.
“I thought our offensive flow wasn’t bad tonight,” Woodson said. “I thought the ball movement was a little bit better, but we couldn’t make shots.”
Credit the Indiana defense. It was phenomenal for the second straight game. While the Knicks looked somewhat crisper offensively, they still couldn’t get to the basket. When they looked to attack off the dribble, Roy Hibbert and the Pacers simply shut off the paint, where New York shot a miserable 13-for-34.
“Our effort was just off the charts,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said afterward. “I couldn’t be more proud of our defensive effort, our rebounding effort, and our willingness to share the ball offensively.”
The Knicks got some decent looks at the basket and shot decently (10-for-25) from mid-range, but you can’t win with mid-range shots. They got more 3-point attempts off then they did in Game 3, but many of them were rushed or contested.
Truly, the Knicks are in a funk, having lost five of their last seven games. Anthony and J.R. Smith have combined to shoot 33 percent in that stretch. Jason Kidd has missed his last 17 shots, his last basket coming three weeks ago. And Tyson Chandler looks nothing like the inside force that won Defensive Player of the Year last season.
It’s a bad time to be playing so poorly. And you can’t blame Woodson for trying something different. But he didn’t quite reach all the way down into his bag of tricks.
Kidd still played 16 minutes off the bench, even though his two misses looked awful and took place in the first 7:20 he was on the floor. Meanwhile, two guys who could have provided an offensive spark, Chris Copeland and Steve Novak, rode the pine until late in the third quarter and the final minute, respectively. The Knicks outscored the Pacers by 12 points in Copeland’s 12 minutes, and he and Novak combined to shoot 3-for-4 from 3-point range.
There was also the curious case of Prigioni’s playing time. The numbers have shown that the Knicks are better both offensively and defensively with the 35-year-old rookie on the floor, a phenomenon that Woodson has acknowledged often and as recently as Game 2 of this series. But Prigioni played less than 3 1/2 minutes on Tuesday, and Woodson didn’t have much of an explanation.
“Right now,” Woodson said, “I’m reaching, trying to find combinations that will work.”
Nothing has. And the bottom line is that the Pacers are the better team. The best player in the series hasn’t been Anthony, but rather Paul George. And while Woodson can’t find anyone who can make a shot, the Pacers have someone new step up every night. On Tuesday, it was George Hill, who led all scorers with 26 points on 9-for-14 shooting.
The Pacers can now close the series out in New York on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, TNT). Woodson will still be searching for answers.