INDIANAPOLIS – A year ago, Lance Stephenson was comic relief and the Indiana Pacers’ resident knucklehead. Twelve months later, he is as serious as a flagrant foul and the single biggest reason the Pacers eliminated the New York Knicks in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Last May, Stephenson was the Indiana deep reserve, all raw talent and immaturity, who got caught by the cameras making a choke sign when LeBron James missed free throws in Game 3 of the teams’ playoff series. James ignored him, in the moment and when asked about him later. But a couple of his Miami teammates weren’t so detached; Juwan Howard got into a verbal confrontation with Stephenson before Game 4 and backup big Dexter Pittman seemed to be on the floor late in Game 5 for the express purpose of flattening him (Pittman winked to the Heat bench after the hit across the young Pacers guard’s throat).
Now, it’s Stephenson doing the flattening. Not quite all growed up but making a mad dash in that direction, the 6-foot-5 kid from Brooklyn – from the same Lincoln High that produced the likes of Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair – did New York’s NBA team wrong. He grabbed the game at both ends – grabbed it by the throat, one might say – and scored nine points in the first quarter to ignite Indiana in a game it couldn’t squander, then nine more (in not quite seven minutes) in the fourth when it mattered most.
His 25 were a career playoff high but then, just about everything Stephenson does this postseason is a career high, given how unused he was previously. Twice in the first half, Stephenson snagged rebounds and raced downcourt, going end to end through New York’s defense for buckets.
In the fourth, he picked off a pass by Carmelo Anthony and finished with a three-point play that broke a 92-92 tie. Next time down, he drew Tyson Chandler‘s sixth personal foul and hit two free throws. After an Anthony jumper made it 99-94, Stephenson backed his way first through J.R. Smith, then through Anthony for another layup. It wasn’t over, except that it was.
“Unbelievable,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s got no playoff experience whatsoever, but he’s got some of the best basketball instincts I’ve ever been around. There’s an old phrase – he’s a gamer.
“He’s not always going to look good. He’s not always going to be in the right spots defensively. … But you put him in a situation like this – Game 6, closeout game – the kid’s got a lot of guts and great basketball instincts.” (more…)
Knicks-Pacers has been kind of ugly. Eastern Conference playoff basketball at its finest.
The average score of the first five games has been 88-86. They’ve been slow and inefficient. Both teams have shot 41 percent. The Knicks can’t finish at the rim (shooting 48 percent from the restricted area) and the Pacers can’t hit a jump shot (shooting 34 percent from outside the restricted area).
Knicks defensive rebounding
DREB% = Percent of available def. reb.
That makes for a lot of missed shots. And if the Knicks had just rebounded a few more of those missed shots, they might be up 3-2, instead of facing elimination for the second straight time in Game 6 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). What was the fourth-best defensive rebounding team in the regular season and the best defensive rebounding team in the first round has been the worst defensive rebounding team in the conference semifinals.
The Pacers were the fourth-best offensive rebounding team in the regular season and have won the battle of the boards on that end of the floor in this series. They’re not the Boston Celtics, who have two jump-shooting bigs, eschew offensive rebounds for the sake of better transition defense, and totaled just 31 offensive boards in six first-round games.
Pacers offensive rebounding
OREB% = Percent of available off. reb.
The Pacers’ two big men play in the paint, they know the Knicks aren’t a fast-break team, and they’ve already grabbed more than twice as many offensive boards (64) as the Celtics did against New York. Roy Hibbert has 10 more offensive rebounds (26) than Tyson Chandler has defensive rebounds (16).
Knicks coach Mike Woodson has repeatedly pointed to the Pacers’ offensive rebounds as the difference between wins and losses. Indeed, the Knicks have won the two games in which they kept the Pacers’ offensive rebounding percentage under 30 percent, though Indy still managed to rack up a ton of second-chance points in Game 5.
Note 1: You can register second-chance points without an offensive rebound. On four occasions in Game 5, the Knicks blocked an Indiana shot out of bounds or committed a loose-ball foul on a defensive rebound, with the Pacers scoring subsequently. That helps account for the 24/12 conversion rate.
Despite all the offensive rebounds, the Pacers have still attempted far fewer shots (367) than the Knicks have (406) in this series. Part of the reason is that Indiana has gone to the free-throw line a lot more (130-89), but turnovers are also a big story.
The Pacers ranked 29th in turnover percentage in the regular season, committing 16.2 turnovers per 100 possessions. That number is at 19.8 in this series. If it was any lower, Indiana would be preparing for the Heat right now.
NYK Pts Off
This is what the Knicks’ defense is meant to do. They pressure the ball, trap pick-and-rolls, and double-team the post, trying to force their opponent into miscues and willing to concede weak-side 3-point attempts if the opponent can move the ball quickly enough. Against this opponent, it’s a sound strategy (though, with defenders out of position, it also contributes to the defensive rebounding issue).
The Pacers have committed a lot of turnovers in every game of the series, but there’s a difference between dead-ball turnovers (offensive fouls, traveling, throwing the ball out of bounds — which the Pacers are very good at) and live-ball turnovers (strips, pass deflections, interceptions, etc). And not coincidentally, the Knicks have won the two games in which the Pacers have committed more than 10 live-ball turnovers.
Note 2: Live-ball turnovers are always recorded as a steal for the opponent. Dead-ball turnovers are not. This makes it easy to tell how many of each there were.
Paul George, as great as he’s been defensively, has as many turnovers (25) as his next two teammates combined (David West has 13 and George Hill has 12). And if Hill is still out with a concussion, George will need to handle the ball more, which is obviously not a good thing for the Pacers’ offense.
Neither team is going to shoot well in this series. That fact has clearly been established. The Pacers just aren’t a good shooting team in the first place, and the Knicks are going against the No. 1 defense in the league.
For New York, staying alive is about cleaning the glass. For Indiana, finishing the series off is about taking care of the ball.
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.
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – With each of the four conference semifinals tied at 1-1 (for the first time since this round went to seven games in 1968), it’s a great time to mine the lineup data provided by NBA.com/Stats for trends, anomalies, and whatever information might be useful … or at least interesting.
The eight teams remaining have only played between six and nine games, so we’re not looking at very big sample sizes here. But small sample sizes are all you have to go on in the playoffs. Decisions have to be made on how players or player combinations have played in that series and against that opponent. Even if you include numbers against the opponent in the regular season, that’s at most four additional games of data.
We’ve already seen some of these teams change lineups mid-series. And sometimes, like when the Dallas Mavericks decided to start J.J. Barea in Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, a lineup change can make a big difference.
So, as we take our first day off of the playoffs, here are some notes from 53 games worth of postseason lineup data…
It was a plus-48 in the first round and a plus-5 in both Games 1 and 2 of the conference semifinals. The problem, of course, is that the Indiana bench stinks. In 216 minutes, all other Pacers lineups have scored 93.1 points per 100 possessions and allowed 105.8, for a NetRtg of -12.7 in the postseason.
Indy coach Frank Vogel talks often about his emphasis on defending without fouling. That’s key to not only keep the Pacers’ opponents off the line, but also to keep their starters on the floor.
Over their eight playoff games, every Pacer starter has a positive plus-minus and every sub has a negative one. So maybe the Pacers can benefit as much from three days off as the banged up Knicks can, with an ability to use their rested starters for heavy minutes in Game 3 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
Time for OKC to go small?
Setting a minimum of 35 minutes played, the best lineup (offensively, *defensively and overall) of the postseason has been Oklahoma City’s small lineup of Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher, Kevin Martin, Kevin Durant and Nick Collison. This unit of two point guards, two scoring wings, and a versatile big has outscored its opponents by 46.5 points per 100 possessions and had its best run in Game 6 in Houston, outscoring the Rockets 31-20 in 14 minutes. It was a plus-7 in seven minutes of Game 1 against the bigger Grizzlies, but Scott Brooks didn’t use it at all in Game 2 on Tuesday.
If you remove Nick Collison and just look at the four smalls together, they’ve been just as effective (OffRtg: 130.2, DefRtg: 80.9, NetRtg: +49.3) in a slightly larger sample of 51 minutes (43 against Houston and eight against Memphis).
With Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder have other small-lineup options. And thus far against the Grizzlies, they’re a plus-13 in 14 minutes playing small. They’re a minus-17 in 82 minutes playing big and their starting lineup (Jackson, Sefolosha, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins has shot a brutal 13-for-47 (28 percent) in its 28 minutes together.
That, of course, will be something to keep an eye on as the series heads to Memphis for Saturday’s Game 3 (5 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Small works in the other West series too Both Gregg Popovich and Mark Jackson changed their starting lineups for Game 2 in San Antonio on Wednesday, moves that worked out better for the Warriors. Their (small) lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut is a plus-17 in the series (plus-12 in Game 2), the second-best mark of the conference semifinals thus far.
It was a mini lineup of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw that pulled off the Spurs’ amazing comeback on Monday, racking up a plus-13 in 10 minutes over the fourth quarter and two overtimes. With Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter healthy, Popovich didn’t use that lineup at all in Game 2.
Supersubs in Chicago
Obviously, Wednesday’s blowout in Miami makes for some funky lineup numbers in that series, but the Bulls do have a lineup – Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah – that’s a plus-14 over the two games (plus-13 in 16 minutes in Game 1 and plus-1 in three minutes in Game 2). It was a plus-7 in 21 minutes in the first round and was a strong plus-20.3 points per 100 possessions in 129 minutes in the regular season. If Kirk Hinrich and/or Luol Deng return for Game 3 on Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), it will be interesting to see how much time that lineup plays together going forward.
A change of fortune in Miami The Heat had a killer lineup – Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh – that Erik Spoelstra used rather sparingly (only 112 minutes), but outscored its opponents by 30.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. That lineup was a plus-12 in 10 minutes in the first round against Milwaukee, but is a minus-13 in six minutes in the conference semis, having allowed the Bulls to shoot 6-for-9 (3-for-3 from 3-point range) in the closing minutes of Game 1.
Offensive struggles in New York The best offensive lineup in the regular season (minimum 200 minutes) was the Knicks’ lineup of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, which scored 119.3 points per 100 possessions in 269 minutes together. With Kidd, Smith and Anthony all struggling, that unit has scored just 86.6 points per 100 possessions in 18 playoff minutes, and has been even worse defensively.
ATLANTA – The Sunday afternoon film session wasn’t necessary. The Indiana Pacers knew they’d departed from normal in their Game 3 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in real-time, as they were being pushed around the floor at Philips Arena.
The film session only reinforced what they already knew, what everyone watching knew by halftime of Game 3; the Pacers let the Hawks off the mat and fumbled their chance to put a stranglehold on this series.
The Hawks had plenty do with it, of course. They came home and used some timely adjustments and some home-crowd energy to get back into the series. But the Pacers were awful generous for a team that has designs on a deep playoff run. They offered little resistance once the Hawks opened up a big lead, trailing by as many as 28 points after halftime and never getting closer than 18.
Again, you don’t need a film session to know that you’ll be receiving two thumbs down for a performance like that.
“It would have been understandable if we tried to do the things that we do and they just took us out of it,” Pacers All-Star swingman Paul George said. “We created all the mistakes. We didn’t come in ready to play. And the tape told it all. We did it. We didn’t come out ready to play.”
For a team that crawls into the playoffs that might be an acceptable excuse. But not for the No. 3 seed. Not with a 2-0 lead in the series and nothing but opportunity ahead of them. That’s what makes tonight’s Game 4 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) so unbelievably crucial for a Pacers team that has failed in 12 straight tries to win in Atlanta.
They cannot afford to “give” the Hawks any more life if they expect things to go as planned. George cannot allow Josh Smith to bottle him up in Game 4 the way he did in Game 3. Roy Hibbert has to chase away whatever Atlanta demons have plagued him over the years and dominate in the paint. David West, the Pacers’ leader and emotional backbone, cannot allow himself to get caught up in the swirl of foolishness that he did, throwing Al Horford to the ground and earning a Flagrant 1 foul before halftime. And the Pacers cannot be as careless with the basketball tonight as they were Saturday night, when plenty of their 22 turnovers helped fuel a 42-10 Hawks first half run that decided the game.
“That was probably the most disappointing thing, watching the video,” West said of all the unnecessary miscues. “Just being out of sync, not putting the ball where guys wanted the ball, the simple careless stuff. Again, stuff that we’re not going to overreact to that stuff, but we do know it’s of the utmost importance that we take care of the basketball if we want to win this series.”
The Hawks (14.3) and Pacers (14.5) ranked 21st and 22nd, respectively, in turnovers during the regular season. So for the Pacers to be as careless as they were was startling and even more pronounced in the video session, when Pacers coach Frank Vogel could rewind each and every mistake over and over again.
“These guys care, they work extremely hard, but they’re not always going to be perfect,” Vogel said. “And you have to point [the mistakes] out and hold them accountable and make sure you are drilling the right things to make sure we are executing the right way.”
One poor game can’t undo an entire season worth of playing at a high level. And West most definitely won’t allow the Pacers’ subpart effort and performance in Game 3 to beat them again in Game 4.
“The biggest thing for us is to refocus,” West said. “We still haven’t played great defense in this series, we’re still waiting on a great defensive performance from us. Again, it’s just about us taking care of that basketball. I really don’t know what else to say. Twenty-four turnovers, or whatever it was, is just way to many for a team that lives in transition, lives on transition [3-pointers] and transition dunks to be effective. We just played right into their hands.”
The Pacers can’t do that again, they better not if they want to a chance go home and finish this series in five.
ATLANTA – If the Hawks were looking for a bruiser, a goon, a bona-fide lip buster even, they could have found someone who fit the profile better than Jeff Teague.
Ivan Johnson, Johan Petro, Mike Scott, DeShawn Stevenson and Dahntay Jones would all get the part over Teague in an open casting call for the role of NBA enforcer. The wiry strong but slight Teague would get laughed out of the audition.
Yet there he was Saturday night at Philips Arena, delivering the symbolic and very real elbow to the back of Indiana Pacers’ bully David West, with seven minutes to play in the first half of a game the Hawks dominated from three minutes in until the finish. Their 90-69 blowout win in Game 3 of this first playoff series not only allowed the Hawks the bounce back effort needed after two rough road losses to start the postseason, but also served as a statement game for Teague and his teammates.
They were up 21 when West shoved Al Horford to the ground on a fast break, earning a Flagrant 1 foul for his lick. Something had to be done. Teague knew it and didn’t hesitate. His instincts just kicked in.
“Well, kinda” he said, rubbing his low-cut mohawk. “I thought the play he made wasn’t right. So I had to let him know we were going to be there, that we’re not going to back down from anybody. I think that’s the same way they play. They try to be very physical and tough about it. And David West is a strong guy. He plays hard and plays physical. But I think we met the challenge tonight.”
For this one night the Hawks did exactly that, extending the Pacers’ losing streak at Philips Arena to 12 straight games, regular and postseason combined.
The Hawks held the Pacers to a new franchise playoff low 27-percent shooting, the previous low set against the Pacers in 1994. The 30 points they allowed in the first half sets a new franchise playoff record, and the 69 points allowed in the game is tied for the second-lowest mark in franchise playoff history.
Horford dusted himself off after that shove from West and roasted the Pacers for career-playoff highs in points (26) and assists (16), joining Dikembe Mutombo and Moses Malone as the only Hawks since the 1986-87 season to 25 or more points and 15 or more rebounds in a playoff game.
The Hawks used a 42-10 run to stagger the Pacers in a fight that was over by halftime. Hawks coach Larry Drew made his adjustment, a lineup change for the bigger with Petro instead of Kyle Korver, and Josh Smith locked in defensively on Pacers All-Star Paul George — it worked to perfection.
But the biggest adjustment was in attitude. They refused to be pushed around for a third straight game by West, Roy Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers.
Horford couldn’t believe it when he realized that it realized that Teague was the first responder on that shove from West.
For the record, Horford said he thought West’s play was a hard foul but not anything dirty. It wouldn’t have mattered by then anyway. The Hawks left Indianapolis desperate for a win; desperate to show their home crowd that the team they saw on screen in Games 1 and 2 was not the team that would show up for this one; desperate to shut up the critics who bash them, rightfully mind you, for being such an inconsistent bunch.
Horford said he was going to work the way he did Saturday night no matter what anyone else said or tried to do about it.
“I was just being aggressive, playing with a lot of energy,” he said, crediting the circumstance and the late-arriving but raucous home crowd equally for energizing his team. “My teammates did a good job time and time again of getting me easy baskets. They were finding me whether it was off help or drive and kick. Defensively, I just wanted to set the tone and be more aggressive. I go out there with that same mindset every game. Tonight, I had to step up and make some plays on the offensive end.”
Smith served in a similar capacity on the defensive end, limiting George’s opportunities and effectiveness early by confining the Pacers’ best offensive player to a small patch of real estate on the wing and limiting his forays into the paint to a minimum.
“I just tried to keep a body on him, knowing and understanding that he is the focal point on the perimeter, as far as what they do offensively,” Smith said. “I just tried to stay engaged, tried to be elusive a little bit as far as pin downs were concerned. That was pretty much the game plan.”
Teague and Devin Harris did their part, too, thoroughly outplaying their counterparts in blue (George Hill and Lance Stephenson) on a night when the Hawks’ starters combined to shoot just 6-for-26 from the floor.
“This team has done something it’s done all year long, and that’s respond,” Drew said. “After two losses in Indiana, and coming home … I really felt we would respond. We came out early and the energy was there. We had some guys that played tremendous tonight. It all started with Josh Smith. I thought his effort on Paul George really set the tone for the game. George is such a terrific player. He’s really elusive off the dribble, and to throw a guy like Josh, who has the versatility to defend all five positions … I thought Josh really set the tone.
“The other guy I thought did a phenomenal job defensive was Jeff Teague. He got a couple of fouls early, but I thought he did a really good job in defending George Hill. The first two games of the series, George Hill has really played well. He’s shot the ball extremely well, but tonight I thought our guys took the defensive challenge. Our defense was the thing that really got us going.”
The defense, energy, resilience and refusal of at least one man to see the Pacers kick sand in the Hawks faces anymore. The Hawks shut the Pacers down offensively and turned them over (22 for 24 points) enough to blow the game open and keep West, Hibbert and George from capitalizing on their obvious size advantage.
“I thought they beat us at each position tonight; not with the different lineup that they played,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We didn’t take care of the ball very well. When you don’t screen with physicality and you don’t separate out of those screens, and don’t execute your sets, and let the other team take your airspace, it’s going to leave you with a poor shooting night and a lot of turnovers.”
Wherever the physicality of the series goes from here, Game 4 Monday night promises to be another bruiser, Smith insists the Hawks are ready.
“Yeah, it’s the playoffs. Adrenaline is flowing and emotions are running high,” he said. “It is going to get a little chippy, especially down there in the paint. The bigs for Indiana, they play a physical game and all we’re trying to do is match their physicality and exceed it a little bit. We’re not backing down from anything and it should be a pretty good series.”
We know Teague is already locked in and ready to go.
“We’re not backing down from anybody,” Teague said, “No matter what.”
“People love to throw dirt on us after one game,” Smith said. “It never fails.”
The Hawks struggled mightily in Indiana, getting worked over and physically whipped by a bigger and much more rugged Pacers team en route to the 0-2 deficit they carry into Game 3 Saturday night at Philips Arena.
“We tend to be at our best when people are doubting us,” Smith said. “There’s no other way around it really. It’s who we’ve been for years now. Just when you are ready to count us out, we’ll surprise you.”
The only problem is, they are not those same ol’ predictably unpredictable Hawks we’re used to. That team was dismantled last summer when new general manager Danny Ferry took over and traded Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams before he got his new business cards printed up.
The roster gumbo Hawks coach Larry Drew has had to stir to keep this team afloat this season didn’t look anything like the mismatched crew that rolled to five straight playoff appearance prior to this season with a core of Smith, Horford, Johnson, Williams and Zaza Pachulia, who played in just 52 games this season before an Achilles injury that required surgery ended his season.
That the Hawks made it six straight is a testament to Drew and his staff and the guys healthy enough to finish a tumultuous and injury-plagued regular season that also sacked Lou Williams (torn ACL) on Jan. 18, after he’d played just 39 games in his first season with his hometown team.
So no, these are not necessarily those same ol’ Hawks we’re all used to, not with nine free agents on the roster and a head coach whose contract is up this summer as well. This is a team in transition, not the young up and coming Hawks from three or four years ago..
“It’s very different, very different. There’s no question it’s totally different,” Horford said. “I think that Josh and I and even Jeff [Teague], we’ve had to deal with major adjustments this year. It even goes back to last year with me going down, the team adjusted and played well. And then this year, we’ve dealt with injuries throughout the year, Zaza, Lou and a number of other guys have missed time. We use something crazy like 40 different [starting] lineups and through everything we’ve been able to adjust. That’s one of our strengths, actually, that we’re able to play through injuries and whatever adversity comes our way.”
Horford and Smith earned their postseason stripes battling back from adversity in their first playoff series, an epic seven-game tussle with the No. 1 seed and eventual champion Boston Celtics in the first round in 2008. The Hawks got their noses bloodied in two games in Boston but rebounded at Philips Arena with two huge wins to even the series.
The home teams went on to win each of the next three games with the Celtics winning big in Game 7. But the Hawks had established themselves on a national stage. They played 33 playoff games in the three seasons that followed, taking two steps back for every three steps forward.
The Pacers present an intriguing problem for the Hawks in that they are big and physical, deep and athletic, with a mix of young talent (Paul George) and veteran leadership (David West) that makes them extremely difficult for the Hawks to counter in a series.
Still, the Hawks are not the least bit deterred by their current predicament (blame it on that experience from the Boston series six years ago).
“This is not doom and gloom at all for our group,” Drew said. “We’ve done some good things in this series. There are certainly some things we have to do better in order to get a win. But we’re coming into [Game 3] with a lot of confidence and knowing the importance of the game and we’ll come out and play our best basketball. Anything is possible in the playoffs. Home court is very important. You look around the league at the different playoff series and that point is made night after night. We know we’re in a situation where this game has tremendous importance and we know how well we have to play tomorrow and I’m expecting our guys to come out and do that.”
More importantly, they need no prompting to realize the gravity of what awaits them if they can’t hold off the Pacers on their home floor. The next team to come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a series will be the first.
“We all know what’s at stake,” Smith said. “That’s what made this postseason really special for us. We had so many new faces getting acclimated to this team and to this franchise, and that goes from the front office on down to the team. It’s a special group to have fought through the injuries and all of the drama, not knowing who was going to be here after the [February] trade deadline and all of the stuff that has comes along with it. And here we are, still right smack in the middle of this series.”
If you let these guys tell it, they’ve got the Pacers exactly where they want them to be, within reach.
“The way the first two games have gone … you know better than I do, a 2-0 series is nothing to us,” Horford said. “Game 3 is the biggest game for us. It’s going to define what will happen in this series, not anything that happened in those first two games and not anything that anyone says about us can do that. We’re still in a good position because we’re right in the middle of it like we always are.”
Who’s better at full strength, the Pacers or Knicks? Who do you see as the No. 2 seed in the East?
Steve Aschburner: It’s hard to say how good Indiana would be at full strength because we never saw Danny Granger back and carving out a role in the Pacers’ new Paul George-oriented pecking order. I still maintain that would have been mostly good. And the Pacers’ bench issues are going to recede now with the playoffs looming. Indiana has a more favorable schedule to the finish, in my view, so I’m liking them at No. 2 — and as one half of a solid Eastern Conference finals.
Fran Blinebury: We know already that the Pacers won’t be at full strength since Danny Granger is lost for the season. But I still give what’s left of the Indiana lineup an edge over the Knicks. You’ve always got to take good defense over good offense and the Pacers have the best defense in the league. Never mind the Heat and Spurs juggling their lineups to get rest for the playoffs. Pacers coach Frank Vogel says his team is driving for the No. 2 seed to get as much home-court advantage as possible.
Jeff Caplan: Maybe it’s just because I’ve seen the Pacers more recently and the Knicks have been banged up for a while, but I really like what Frank Vogel has got going with his bunch (yes, I saw the near-meltdown at the Clippers). Paul George is sensational and David West is playing at a high level. Their defense is smothering and now that Roy Hibbert is playing better, this team is multidimensional and dangerous. As for the Knicks, this nine-game win streak is nice, and needed, but there’s a lot of fluff in there. I just don’t see how the elder Knicks hold up in a seven-game series with either Indy or Miami, and frankly, I could see Chicago (with a healthy Joakim Noah and Marco Belinelli) pushing New York to the limit in a potential 3-6 first-round series. So mark me down as picking the Pacers to take the No. 2 seed.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Pacers and Pacers. While this is the perfect time to ask the question, with both teams playing well, Indiana is more dependable with its success based on defense and rebounding. New York needs to beat people with shooting, often 3-point shooting, and that is not as reliable.
John Schuhmann:Even if you take Danny Granger out of the equation, the answer has to be Indiana. The Pacers have been a much better defensive team all season, and they’ve been just a hair worse than the Knicks offensively since the All-Star break. They’ve got a guy — Paul George — who can take on the Melo assignment and, by far, the best 3-point defense in the league, which is obviously a huge factor against the 3-point-happy Knicks. The Pacers can certainly have some ugly stretches offensively, but New York hasn’t shown any kind of defensive consistency all season. I feel much better about this pick than my Spurs-over-Thunder pick.
Sekou Smith: The Pacers seem like the more stable pick, the more reliable group in terms of the consistency they bring on a nightly basis. But at full strength, I’m going with the Knicks. They have, in Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, two elite scorers capable of taking games over at any time. They also have a defensive anchor in Tyson Chandler as well. Much has been made this season, and rightfully so, about the job Frank Vogel has done with Indiana. But I’d argue that Mike Woodson has done as good a coaching job of anyone in the league when you factor in the games his players have missed to injury and the fact that he’s working with half a roster that could star in “Cocoon 3.” The Knicks are the No. 2 team in the East.
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Indiana Pacers found themselves in the peculiar position of rooting for the Miami Heat last week. Not because they were trying to butter-up the beasts of the East as they went for consecutive win No. 28 at Chicago, but because their disdain for their Central Division rival runs that much deeper.
Still, the Pacers, as with as the rest of the free world, know the road to the Eastern Conference championship goes through Miami. Last May, Indiana held a 2-1 series lead over the eventual NBA champs before it all unraveled in a six-game, East semifinal defeat.
Approaching a year later, the Pacers are a bit older and wiser. They believe, even with Danny Granger officially ruled out for the season, that they’re big enough, deep enough, physical enough and more explosive offensively — and even tougher defensively — than last season’s version to match up with the Heat in a potential East finals.
“We feel like we can compete with anybody if we’re playing defense and we’re making sharp, sound decisions on the offensive end,” forward David West said during the Pacers’ stop in Dallas last week. “Right now they’re [the Heat] the cream of the crop. They’re the champs and everybody else is just chasing them.”
Added All-Star Paul George: “The only thing that we’ll have to prove is how well we can play in the playoffs.”
Which is where being wiser could ultimately make the biggest difference. And it starts with coach Frank Vogel, who is in just his second full season as coach and whose 40th birthday doesn’t roll around until a few days after the NBA Finals in June.
Vogel said he walked away from last year’s Heat series having learned two key lessons that he’s implemented since training camp.
“No. 1 is we were one of the worst fouling teams in the league last year,” Vogel said. “And it probably cost us two games in that [Miami] series where we had two guys in foul trouble for key stretches.”
Let’s tackle this one before revealing key lesson No. 2. Indiana racked up the third-most fouls in the league last season, and in the six games against Miami it committed 147 infractions, 24.5 fouls per game, even more than its regular-season average.
The two “cost us” games Vogel referred to were Games 1 and 4, when the Pacers were called for a combined 59 fouls, or 40 percent of their six-game total. (more…)
DALLAS – As late as Wednesday, after the Indiana Pacers beat the Rockets in Houston and then huddled around the nearest TV to catch the end of Bulls-Heat, they believed Danny Granger was coming back.
Word was as soon as Thursday night at Dallas.
All that changed in a matter of about 15 hours when coach Frank Vogel got the definitive news Thursday afternoon: Granger is done for 2012-13. After flare-ups followed a lone failed comeback bid in late February and early March led to another round of doctor consultations, the determination was for the former All-Star to undergo surgery on his troublesome left knee.
Granger’s next stop is the OR. But the Pacers’ is the postseason. As disappointing as the news is for Granger and his teammates, Indiana has reached this point — a dogfight with the New York Knicks for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference — without the him for all but five mostly ineffective games all season.
“It was surprising, I’ve been thinking he was coming back all along, but we can’t do anything about it now,” guard George Hill said. “I hope that he has a safe recovery and a quick recovery, but we have to move on as a team and continue doing what we’ve been doing all year long without him and that’s finding our identity and playing good, solid team basketball.”
As much as the addition of a 6-foot-9 shooter might have boosted the Pacers for the stretch run and beyond, integrating Granger at this late date could have proven more problematic than beneficial. In the five games he did play (more like three games because he logged just 10 and eight minutes in his final two appearances), Granger averaged 5.4 points and 1.8 rebounds. He played 19 minutes in each of his first three games.
“Now that question whether he’s going to get back or not is out of our minds,” David West said. “And we just have to go ahead with the guys we have.”
The Pacers have managed to fill Granger’s position nicely with budding All-Star Paul George, journeymen Gerald Green and Sam Young, and rookie Orlando Johnson. Lance Stephenson has emerged as a contributor as the starting shooting guard. Roles have long been established as has the Pacers’ hard-nosed identity as the league’s toughest defense.
With just nine games left after Thursday’s matchup with the Mavericks, the Pacers are focused on capturing the No. 2 seed. They’re hopeful of grinding their way to the East finals against the Heat, last season’s playoff ouster who Indiana actually rooted for to extend their streak to 28 at Chicago.
Indiana won the regular-season series with Miami, 2-1, taking two home games by an average margin of 11.5 points and holding the Heat to 77 and 89 points. With or without Granger, they believe they possess the team defense, interior size and scoring to make the Heat sweat.
“Succeeding in this league is about confidence, and it’s not like we just lost Danny and we have to go out and establish a belief in ourselves,” Vogel said. “We have a great deal of belief in ourselves, in who we’ve become this year without Danny. Obviously, we had hopes to bring him back, but we have a great deal of confidence.”
Vogel said he spoke to Granger Thursday prior to him leaving the team to return to Indianapolis and meet with doctors.
“He’s at peace with [the decision for surgery]. He knows that it’s the best decision,” Vogel said. “He’s disappointed, but you’ve got to make the best decision and we feel like we did.”
The best news to come Thursday for the Pacers was the return of West, Indiana’s second-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder (just a tick below George in both categories) from a six-game absence with a balky back.
West has made tremendous strides this season, returning to the form prior to his ACL injury that made him a two-time All-Star with the New Orleans Hornets. He’s averaging 17.3 ppg, up from 12.8 last season, on nearly 50 percent shooting, and 7.7 rpg, up from 6.6 last season.
“I don’t think you could give him enough credit for what he’s done with our team and our culture,” Vogel said of the 10-year veteran West. “He’s the lion in the locker room, he’s the heart and soul and he gives us the swagger of knowing we’re playing with one of the best in the game at the power forward position.”
What had been Granger’s team is now in West’s hands. A physical, defensive force and offensive go-to-guy in the clutch, West becomes a free agent this summer, while Granger returns for the final year of his deal.
But on Thursday, with Granger’s official departure and West’s return, all the uncertainty has ceased except for this: Just how far can these Pacers can go?