NEW YORK – Here’s the thing about the Indiana Pacers: Their bench stinks.
They have the league’s best defense, a terrific starting lineup, and a pretty smart coach. But their lack of depth (or just one guy off the bench they can rely on for consistent production) is a major problem. There’s a reason why only one lineup played more minutes than Indiana’s starting group in the regular season.
With one starter out and another in foul trouble, the Pacers’ Achilles heel was on full display in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Thursday, an 85-75 victory for the New York Knicks that sends the series back to Indianapolis for Game 6 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The Pacers now look a lot more vulnerable than they did just hours before Game 5, not just because their 3-1 series lead is now 3-2, but because starting point guard George Hill is out with a concussion he suffered in Game 4 on Tuesday. Hill’s status for Game 6 is unknown, but he must pass the NBA’s concussion testing before he can play again. (And if you read that link, you’ll probably guess that he won’t play again in this series, no matter who wins Saturday.)
D.J. Augustin, who started in Hill’s place on Thursday, is a decent back-up point guard and came up with a huge performance (16 points, 4-for-5 from 3-point range) in Game 1 of this series. But at 40 minutes per game, he’s a big step down from Hill. He scored 12 points on nine shots on Thursday, but didn’t record a single assist in 39 minutes.
Hill’s 26 points helped the Pacers win an ugly Game 4. And more important than his scoring is his ability to get his team into its offense. With one less point guard to call on, Paul George was needed to bring the ball up the floor at times, and the Pacers struggled to get much going offensively. They shot 36 percent and committed 19 turnovers (12 of them live balls), making things even worse by shooting 19-for-33 from the free throw line.
Hill’s absence was felt more on defense, where his size and tenacity has been a key to the Pacers’ ability to defend the Knicks’ pick-and-roll attack. Raymond Felton had a little more space on those pick-and-rolls in Game 5, with Augustin as his primary defender. And Indiana’s league-best defense was further compromised when Roy Hibbert picked up his second foul midway through the first quarter and his fourth foul early in the third.
That, in part, allowed the Knicks to awake from their offensive slumber, which is a scary thing for Indiana going forward. Mike Woodson‘s use of his own bench was another key.
Jason Kidd and Amar’e Stoudemire each played less than seven minutes, and neither saw the floor in the second half. Chris Copeland, who provided a (too-little, too-late) spark in Game 4, played a postseason-high 19:25, giving the Knicks some much-needed 3-point shooting and scoring 13 points.
“Copeland just has a knack for scoring,” Tyson Chandler said. “Anytime you get him in the game, he’s going to make something happen offensively. He’s been doing it all year. He came up huge for us tonight.”
After reaching for answers and coming up empty in Game 4, Woodson found something that worked on Thursday. The Knicks barely scored a point per possession, but that was plenty enough against what the Pacers were doing on the other end of the floor. J.R. Smith (4-for-11) didn’t shoot quite as poorly as he had been over the previous six games, and the New York bench outscored the Indiana bench 35-10.
Having a good bench isn’t necessarily about the points it scores, but rather the drop-off suffered when one or more starters are resting. And while the Pacers weren’t making any excuses after Game 5 – “I don’t think it has anything to do with it,” Frank Vogel said of Hill’s absence – the numbers speak for themselves.
In the regular season, Indiana’s regular starting lineup (with Hill at PG) scored 108.6 points per 100 possessions, while all other lineups scored just 98.5. That’s like the difference between the league’s third best offense and the league’s third worst offense. In this series, their regular starting lineup is a plus-21 in 92 minutes, while all other lineups are now a minus-28 in 148 minutes.
That’s a big drop-off. And with Hill likely out at least another game, Indiana must find a way to nudge that minus-28 closer to zero on Saturday. Otherwise, this series is coming back to New York for Game 7.