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Pacers Crossing the Line on Defense

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 13, 2013, 8:55 PM

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The line dividing the Pacers from the second and third rounds of the NBA playoffs is likely the same one that divides the two-point shots from the three-point shots on the basketball court.

New York, which led the NBA in three-point shots made and attempted during the regular season, needs them as it needs oxygen itself. The Pacers, who led the NBA in defending three-point shots, want to cut off the shot as often as possible. So far in their Eastern Conference semi-final series, the Pacers have yanked fairly hard and well on the life-support cord, and have the Knicks gasping for air as they take a 2-1 lead into Tuesday's game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The Knicks ranked fourth in three-point percentage during the regular season at .376, but have hit .333 in this series. Just as important as the drop-off in the quality of their long-range shooting is the reduction in quantity. They averaged 28.9 attempts in the regular season, but are getting off just 20 per game now. They managed just 11 in the Pacers' 11-point win on Saturday, hitting three. One of those three was a fluke buzzer-beater to end the third quarter from 6-11 forward Amar'e Stoudemire, a career 24 percent shooter from the three-point line.

It's all by the design of Pacers coach Frank Vogel, who on Monday was asked the feeling he got from watching the Knicks struggle to get off three-point shots in Game 3.

“We're following our plan; that's the feeling we have,” he said. “We're trying to limit them from the three-point line. I don't think they're really passing up open threes or are discouraged about it, they're just not getting open threes. It's part of our plan.”

Vogel recognizes the relative ease with which many NBA players hit the three-point shot today, and the outsized impact the shot can have on a game when a team shoots it often and well. As difficult as it might be to believe now, there was a time when hitting a three-point shot was a big deal. When it was introduced to the NBA for the 1979-80 season, the entire Pacers roster attempted just 314 of them, which was more than the league average. The following year, the Pacers attempted only 169. They managed to hit just 18 percent of them, and none of the players hit more than 19 for the season. Billy Knight, the team's leading scorer, tried 19 overall, and hit only three.

Fast forward to this season, when the Knicks fired 2,371 missiles and connected on .376 of them, fourth-best in the NBA. That was how they finished with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference without having a serious low-post scoring threat, and appears to be the only way they can win this series. Problem is, for them, they have hit six fewer three-pointers than the Pacers so far because they have double-teamed the Pacers down low and left open perimeter shooters.

The Pacers allowed opponents to hit just .327 from behind the three-point line during the regular season by adding execution to the emphasis. Their perimeter defense is long, with 6-2 point guard George Hill, 6-5 shooting guard Lance Stephenson and 6-9 swingman Paul George. Those three are quick enough to defend without requiring the help of double-teams, and are willing to maintain constant pressure on capable shooters.

“How we guard the three is predicated on not double-teaming as much as possible,” Vogel said. “There are times against a Carmelo Anthony when you have to. (But) trying to stay home on shooters is a big part of our plan.”

The other part is having Roy Hibbert back in the lane, protecting the rim. Hibbert, who blocked nine shots in the first two games of the series, and altered several others, can clean up some of his teammates' mistakes by picking up ballhandlers who penetrate into the lane. By doing so, perimeter defenders can apply pressure to shooters without having too much fear of getting beat off the dribble.

“It gives me all the confidence,” George said. “I know that I have the footspeed to stay in front of guys but I can really come up and pressure, get into him and really be a hassle on the perimeter because Roy protects the rim so well.”

Adds Vogel: “There's no question our best three-point line defense is Roy Hibbert.”

The Knicks do not have the size or mindset to match up with the Pacers around the basket, so their fate appears to lie with their three-point shooting – which raises the possibility that New York coach Mike Woodson might put even more emphasis on the three-point shot to try to shoot his way out of trouble. Anthony, the NBA's leading scorer during the season, is a legitimate threat, but has had just one effective game against George's defense. J.R. Smith, the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, is a legitimate long range weapon, but has hit just 3-of-16 shots in this series, and has been ill with a flu virus since Saturday morning.

“We desperately need (Smith's) offense, and if I can't get it, we have to keep mixing and matching trying to find it somewhere,” Woodson said.

Woodson might look to dig deeper into his bench and give more minutes to Steve Novak and Chris Copeland. Novak (.425) ranked 11th in the three-point shooting during the season, while Copeland (.421) was 13th. Novak, however, is a one-dimensional player who is coming off a back injury that kept him out of the first game of this series, while Copeland is a rookie with precious little postseason experience.

Vogel is comfortable with whatever the Knicks do, believing he has the personnel to deal with all possibilities.

“Whatever moves they make we'll be ready to counter-act them,” he said.

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