The New York Knicks were a team that averaged 100 points exactly during the regular season. So yeah, they were pretty good. But that was then and this is now, and lately they have not looked like the team that was heavily favored to win this series. Maybe the odds makers need to reappraise the situation.
New York practically stumbled into Bankers Life Fieldhouse, having suffered back-to-back losses versus the Pacers big men. They decided to go big on Tuesday night. It didn’t matter.
The Pacers took care of business—again—beating the Knicks 93-82 and taking commanding 3-1 series lead back to New York for Game 5 on Thursday at 8pm (EST).
Knicks head coach Mike Woodson admitted, “At this point, I’m reaching to try to find combinations that will work.”
The Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith can make excuses all they want. But for anyone actually watching these games one thing stands out: Paul George has really grown as a player. He was recently named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, and it showed on Tuesday as he stifled the League’s scoring champ all night long.
In fact, George’s containment of Anthony has been perhaps the key factor in the series thus far—not to diminish the contributions of other Pacers players, such as Hibbert and West. But the fact is that George has taken his game to another level, and done so when it mattered most. While the Pacers must focus solely on Game 5, the possibility of a George-James (LeBron) matchup in the Eastern Conference finals looms.
“I’m fully confident in myself, I knew (Anthony) wasn’t just going to have his way,” George said. “I think I can match up with any wing, shooting guard or point guard in this league.”
Ask a Knicks fan and you’ll probably get the typical “he’s just in a slump” rationalization. But one look at the actual numbers—and game footage—tells a different story. With any other Pacers player guarding him, Anthony has shot 56 percent. With George on him he shot just 25 percent. And this is versus a player (Anthony) who has known to have one of the quickest releases in the league. The game footage shows he has had virtually no time or separation with George blanketing him. And on those rare occasions when Anthony has had even a hint of separation he has had to rush his shots. George has been that disruptive.
But it wouldn’t be fair to give ALL the credit to George. Other Pacers big men like Hibbert, David West and Ian Mahinmi have been effective in sealing off driving lanes, making life difficult for Anthony. What’s more, the Pacers have discovered an ingenious and effective way to defend shots without getting into foul trouble: follow the rules! That’s right. By simply jumping straight up, keeping their arms straight, they have been very effective in blocking shots. It’s an approach coach Frank Vogel calls the technique “earning a non-call.” Of course, it helps when you have bit, physical players who might as well have been genetically engineered to work inside the paint. Even if Anthony somehow manages to elude George, he’ll find other Pacers standing in his way near the rim.
So pronounced has been the effect that Knicks players have publically lamented that their offense has not played up to its full potential. Could it have less to do with a Kicks team beating itself and more about a Pacers team simply outplaying them?
Against the Pacers, the Knicks have averaged 11 fewer points than they did throughout the regular season. George has been a big reason for this. Thus far in the series he has averaged 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals, and has led his team in scoring with nearly 18 points per game, even as he has shot just 35 percent. In the Tuesday night matchup he had 14 rebounds. But while shooting may not be his strong suit, he is already one of the game’s elite defensive players.
Said teammate David West of George, “He’s got length and good feet and he’s never really out of position even when he gets beat he’s in the rear view contesting the shot. Melo is the best 1-on-1 player in the league, he can get shots from anywhere and he can make shots from anywhere. And PG embraces that challenge.”
There is no doubt that George has come a long way from where he was last season, when and his teammates got out to a 2-1 series lead versus Miami, only to fold in the final three games. Back then, George simply lacked the tools to handle the best of the best. His matchup versus Carmelo Anthony in this series has shown he now possesses the tools to guard any marquee player. One more game and he will have earned the chance to take on LeBron James and the Heat—something he has no doubt longed for since last year’s letdown.
“I think everyone going through that in this locker room had a taste of (last year),” he said. “I have that in the back of my mind, that’s just some stuff that you just can’t let go … If the opportunity presents all be up for it. If we advance and (the Heat) advance, we’ll be happy for that matchup.”
For now, the Pacers must focus on Game 5. Take care of business in New York and then bring on the Heat!