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Defense Brings Homecourt Advantage

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 5, 2013, 9:16 PM

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As they walked to their locker room, their team having just scored 30 points in the second quarter to take a six-point halftime lead, George Hill approached Roy Hibbert with a message.

“Get the (bleep) up on those screens!”

Not exactly the love tap Hibbert might have been expecting, given the pleasant circumstances of the moment, but it does point out the emphasis the Pacers put on their defense. And that emphasis is the reason they added another chapter to their collection of Madison Square Garden memories on Sunday with a 102-95 victory over New York in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series.

This wasn't Reggie Miller exploding for 25 points in a quarter, or eight points in 8.9 seconds, or raining three-pointers from both Seventh and Eighth Avenue. This was a solid and consistent defensive effort, which supplemented a balanced offensive attack, which combined with dominant inside play was too much for the Knicks to overcome, even in the world's most famous arena, as they like to call it, on a beautiful Manhattan Sunday afternoon.

The Pacers didn't offer many individual highlights, unless Hibbert going straight up to block a shot or force a miss is your thing. They did execute the boring game plan, however, after watching more video than a player would ever care to watch in preparation for a game that came less than 48 hours after they had won in Atlanta to advance to the second round.

If they ever need a witness for their defense, Carmelo Anthony could testify. He was the NBA's leading scorer this season, and finished third in the league Most Valuable Player voting, but he's struggled against the Pacers all season. He hit 25-of-66 shots over three regular season games, and he hit 10-of-28 on Sunday. He scored 27 points to do it, but it's never a good thing to have more shot attempts than points, particularly when you are your team's primary scoring threat.

Anthony, who might have been affected by a sore left shoulder suffered in Game 5 of the Knicks' series with Boston last Wednesday, missed his first four shots and failed to hit half of his attempts in any of the quarters. More often than not, he had to deal with Paul George on the perimeter and, if he drove, Hibbert in the lane. And nearly three times as often as he made a shot, he missed.

George finished eighth in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year this season. Hibbert finished 10th. Both, however, made a case for moving up the list on Sunday. George declared his intent to win the honor on the day he won the Most Improved Player award, and sees this series, this stage, as an opportunity to make an impression.

“I don't want to let that get me sidetracked from what the team is trying to do, but I don't want to shy away from the moment,” he said.

“I just want to make it tough on him. It would only help the team if Melo was struggling. I'm just going to try to keep pressure on him. It's going to be tough, but it's what the playoffs are about.”

Hibbert wound up with double defensive duty Sunday, having to help defend Knick guards curling off screens into the lane as well as protect the rim. Raymond Felton scored 12 points in the first quarter, some of them on driving shots that Hibbert failed to jump out and contest. He got another floater with 2:10 left in the half, which apparently inspired Hill's halftime greeting.

“He doesn't want his man to score,” Hibbert said of Hill. “So, I said I have to do both. In the first half I was picking my poison, thinking that them rolling to the basket and getting an uncontested dunk is a higher percentage shot than a floater, but they pay me all this money so I might as well do everything. I have to stop the ball, stop my man from scoring, go straight up and then get the rebound, so ...”

So, the Pacers were grateful. Hibbert ruled the Knicks rim, blocking five shots and altering several others. National television analyst Jeff Van Gundy, the former Knicks coach, dubbed him “The Great Wall of Hibbert” in the second half, and it seemed fitting. Hibbert also limited his matchup, Tyson Chandler, to four points and three rebounds. That he found time and energy to score 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, grab eight rebounds and pass out four assists was nearly a bonus.

Hibbert did commit five fouls, however, grist for his self-critical mill.

“I got some things to work on,” he said. “I was fouling a little bit more than I want to. I hate having five fouls. I feel I can do a lot more and be more aggressive when I don't foul. I'm just going to look at the film and fix those mistakes.”

If the Pacers were going to steal a game in the Garden in this series, this was the one. It was a quick turnaround for both teams, each having clinched their first-round series on Friday. The Pacers, however, fully expected to beat Atlanta and were riding the momentum of breaking their 13-game losing streak in Philips Arena. The Knicks, meanwhile, were in a celebratory mood after eliminating Boston, having just won their first playoff series since 2000, and had the memory of two regular season wins over the Pacers at the Garden.

Now, however, the Pacers have New York's full attention, not to mention homecourt advantage. As long as their defense remains consistent, an enticing opportunity awaits.

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