Posted May 4, 2013 3:50 PM
This is no mere playoff series. This is a morality play. This is basketball philosophy. This is mega-market vs. fly-over country, a.k.a, Knicks vs. Hicks. This is NBA history, or at least the colors of it, orange and blue tangling with gold and navy, Spike Lee, Reggie Miller and eight points, nine seconds. This is id, ego and super-ego played out 48 minutes at a time.
Obviously, this is hype, with only an old nemesis in the Indiana Pacers standing between the New York Knicks and what they feel is their rightful destiny in an Eastern Conference finals against the defending champs, the Miami Heat.
C'mon, we're dealing nothing less than a referendum on Carmelo Anthony here and his halting transformation (with an assist in the media capital of the world) from self-absorbed scorer to, well, self-absorbed scorer who actually helps and drags his team along into the spotlight.
Heady in the wake of their first victorious playoff series since 2000, the Knicks and their fans may expect to do to the Pacers what they did to the proud Celtics, swatting them aside after a couple of scares to assume their right place as the East's 1A. Indiana would argue against that, unconvinced that New York can win again and push toward the Finals for the first time since Bill Clinton left office.
The Pacers see themselves as younger at a point in the season when old legs are growing wearier. They see their starting five not just as better than New York's but better than most of the other 28 teams, too, at a time when rotations get tighter, backup minutes more scarce. They see themselves as ready for the next step, at least, in their postseason progression (one round in 2011, two a year ago) and march toward a title.
The Knicks see them as a speed bump.
The two teams, in many ways, are opposites. New York will rise or fall based on its superstar, Anthony, for a boisterous fan base given to idolatry or petulance, depending on the scoreboard at any moment. Indiana is a surrogate for George Karl's Denver Nuggets, the team Anthony left and the one built now as an ensemble. Pacers fans consider themselves basketball mavens and way more mature than their MSG brethren. While the New Yorkers show up regardless to cheer or boos, Hoosiers are more likely to grab their wallets and stay away unless they like what the Fieldhouse offers.
Each club had only scant moments after their clinchers Friday to focus on the other and not all that long, period, given the Sunday matinee for Game 1 (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). Both were talking defense and physicality already. In that way, New York and Indiana can be much alike.
"When they go big, they put a lot of pressure on opponents," veteran Knicks guard Jason Kidd said. "We've got to try to slow [point guard George] Hill down but the big thing is to put them in situations they're not used to, then we can get a win."
Indiana coach Frank Vogel said: "They played better than any team in the NBA over the last month or so. It's going to be a tough matchup, to go into their building an get a road win, which we'll have to do to win that series."
That's something the Pacers haven't done recently, going 0-3 in New York the past two seasons. But that was just regular season stuff. This is BIG.
1. How sore is Carmelo Anthony's shoulder? He wasn't making a big deal about it before or after Game 6 vs. Boston and it is his non-shooting side. But pain in the heat of battle from an aggressive whack can be disruptive to a shooter's form and concentration, and he said Friday "it was a little sore throughout the whole game." That means this series is one Tyler Hanbrough hit from a kerfuffle.
2. Who plays bigger, Tyson Chandler or Roy Hibbert? Two legit centers in this era of "frontcourt" All-Stars, each is huge within his team's defense. The Pacers serve Hibbert more at the offensive end, but Chandler has more range defensively. This is a chocolate-vanilla choice.
3. Is Paul George ready for his close-up? The All-Star berth was a start. The new Kia Most Improved Player award was validation. But as far as Pacers ready for prime time, nothing conveys that status faster or better than sticking it to the Knicks -- and sideline gnome Spike Lee -- on the fabled Madison Square Garden court. Some think George will be better than Reggie Miller. This is a chance to show it.
4. Does Raymond Felton start to get appreciated? Much maligned for his apparent poor conditioning and limited skills, Felton averaged 17.2 ppg and shot 47 percent against the Celtics in Round 1. He also exposed noted Boston defender Avery Bradley. Felton aimed to play more aggressively and did. If he and the Knicks succeed at that again, he'll get the stage of the East finals to boost his profile.
5. Can Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Novak return to face Indiana? Stoudemire, though working out after knee surgery, hasn't played in two months. Novak's back spasms limited his minutes and kept him out of Game 6 Friday. Looking like one doubtful, one likely for this series.
Carmelo Anthony passed the ball 31 times in Game 6, so claimed the guys with the clickers as a way of showing his "team-iness" when things aren't going particularly well for him on offense. But who's kidding whom? This attack is still 'Melo driven, turning to him first, last and in-between (eight straight to stem New York's bleeding in the fourth qarter of Game 6). The Knicks' 3-point proficiency sagged against Boston, so they'll be looking to return some flow to the offense.
The Pacers defended the 3-pointer better than anyone in 2012-13 (a league-best 32.7 defensive percentage) and will have to go get Knicks shooters, counting on Hibbert to patrol the paint against the seams that spacing creates (New York doesn't rack up many shots inside.)
David West plays a man's game, old school and grinding just this side of Zach Randolph, and his eyes should light up whenever he gets Anthony posted up. With Hibbert, West gives Indiana two bigs most of the time, contrary to how the Knicks have been playing. Beyond that, the Pacers take pride in sticking teams with points from all points -- only George, at 14.9, averaged more than 13.8 FGA this season. (For comparison, Anthony averaged 22.2).
Boston's limited arsenal wasn't a great test for how well or not New York's defense has been playing, but coach Mike Woodson still was encouraged by the activity he saw. Iman Shumpert on George is a solid option, and Chandler can have a lot more impact closing down the middle on Indiana than Hibbert vs. the Knicks.
Shumpert isn't just playing well enough to help New York, he's making Chicago's Derrick Rose look a little wimpy. The Knicks' swingman has been back from knee surgery since mid-January and, at about the one-year anniversary of his injury, has been playing like his old self. Boston coach Doc Rivers called Shumpert the Knicks' "best player" in Game 6 of their first-round series. With George slated to shadow Anthony defensively, Shumpert might be able to take advantage of his mobility and range when West is guarding him.
Hill is what often gets referred to as a timely scorer. He scores as much in the fourth quarter (4.4) as George, on average, and isn't shy with shots from the arc, though he does tend to play better at home.
This category was invented for J.R. Smith. He is a dangerous, streaky scorer who takes pressure off Anthony and can break foes' hearts from distance. He is a knucklehead, allegedly recovering, who falls off the wagon often enough to hurt his side (flagrant elbows, dumb black wardrobe). He is a dangerous, streaky scorer who ... and so on and so forth in an endless loop.
Lance Stephenson boosted his profile and his image this season, settling into a starter's spot in the Danny Granger-less Indiana attack. He worked hard defensively against Atlanta, didn't shoot well yet had a big impact. The third-year guard posted a near-triple double in Game 4 against the Hawks (10-9-8) and grabbed 23 more rebounds in Games 5 and 6 combined.
On paper, the Pacers are the more complete and mature team and, aside from a suspect bench, they've done everything right to make themselves into a Finals contender. But they laid some eggs late in the season and, till Game 6 Friday in Atlanta, have been a different team on the road. New York seems to thrive in drama that would send the Pacers scurrying and there will be plenty over the next two weeks. Knicks in seven.
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