Mark Montieth headshot

Pacers Look to Take Stranglehold on Series

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 6, 2013, 6:35 PM

Editor's Note: Have a Pacers-related question for Mark? Want to be featured in his mailbag column? Send your questions to Mark on twitter at @MarkMontieth or by email at askmontieth@gmail.com.

The trend all season has been for the Pacers to slip after reaching a peak. It's a forgivable thing to do, because it's not a peak unless there's nowhere to go but down, but they've made a habit of growing soft in the wake of their best moments.

So here they are, riding high, sitting pretty and all poised for a major breakthrough after punching New York in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series on Sunday. Winning a second game on the Knicks' home court Tuesday evening before returning home for two games would seemingly all but guarantee a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, not to mention incite panic in the streets and tabloids of Manhattan. But how do they handle it? Do they take a night off, cash in their split and go home happy, or do they recapture the intensity and execution that won Game 1?

They say they will take the latter option, of course, and they said it with as much sincerity as it can be said following Tuesday's practice at the Reebok Sports Center:

Coach Frank Vogel: “We have the mindset that Game 2 is a must-win and we have to go after it. You're going to see incredible desperation on (the Knicks') part, and we have to exceed that.”

Paul George: “That's a team that can get hot quick. The same way they can get hot in a game, they can get hot in a series. Us winning one game gives us some confidence, but we've got to want Game 2 just as bad as we wanted Game 1.”

David West: “We just have to go into the game thinking we have no advantage in the series. We're just starting the series.”

Related: Monday Night Notebook »

Nobody will be mad at the Pacers if they return to Indianapolis with a split, and in fact they're trying to do something no team in franchise history has done in Madison Square Garden: win two consecutive playoff games. Their best opportunity to do that came in 1995, when Reggie Miller scored those historic eight points in 8.9 seconds in Game 1 of the series, but the Pacers lost the second game by 19 points.

Still, the Pacers' approach to Tuesday's game will be revealing. They have an opportunity to wrap their collective hands around the Knicks' collective throat and squeeze, but they have not ridden momentum well in the recent past. The back-to-back-to-back set of victories in February that came courtesy of NBA schedule-makers after the game against Chicago had been postponed was followed by homecourt losses to Toronto and Brooklyn. The four-game sweep of the Western Conference trip late in the season led to losing five of their last six regular season games. The 2-0 lead in their first round series led to two double-figure losses in Atlanta.

It's human nature to relax when things are going well, but teams that contend for championships have to overcome the foibles of human nature. These Pacers are underdogs with homecourt advantage and, it could be argued, happen to be the better team.

Vegas odds-makers had the Knicks a nearly 2-1 favorite to win this series before Sunday, and virtually all of the national analysts were going with the Knicks as well. That group included Jalen Rose, a former Pacer and Knick, who picked the Knicks in six. ESPN columnist Bill Simmons thought the Knicks could get it done in five. It was understandable; they are the higher-seeded team and finished the season strong, while the Pacers floundered at the end.

Sunday's game, however, cast a different light on the series. Suddenly, the fact the Pacers were the NBA's best rebounding team, and the best at defending the paint and the three-point line – all statistical facts, not theories – during the regular season seems to matter. Suddenly, the Pacers' youth seems an asset rather than a liability. They have just one active player on their roster older than 27, while the Knicks have just one player younger than 27. And yet the Pacers were the more poised team on Sunday, and certainly the most energetic, even by the Knicks' admission.

If the Pacers can continue to flummox Carmelo Anthony, who has shot a combined 35-of-94 against them this season, it's difficult to see how the Knicks can win. And Anthony appears flummox-able. He's hit just 35-of-110 shots in his previous four games, going back to Game 4 of New York's series with Boston. He's also has a sore left shoulder, courtesy of Kevin Garnett in Game 5 of that series, and wore a brace to protect it on Sunday. The Knicks do not have the Pacers' offensive balance, so they tend to go as Anthony goes. With him not going well, they've failed to score 90 points in any of their six games against the Celtics, and they needed a 30-point fourth quarter to get to 95 on Sunday.

No question, pressure is mounting quickly on the Knicks, as it can only mount in New York. The New York Post, which trades on cheap shots better than any newspaper in the country, played off Sunday's Cinco de Mayo celebration with a back page headline that took dead aim at Anthony: “Stinko De Melo.”

Some Knicks hinted following Sunday's game that the Pacers had been exceptionally physical with Anthony, and even gone after his sore shoulder. The Pacers were not buying that accusation.

“I'm going to stand my ground,” George said. “(But) I'm not a player to go after injuries or try to hurt guys. I want the best out of Melo. I don't want to hurt Melo and limit him.”

The Pacers, in fact, did not believe they were particularly physical with anyone on Sunday. Both teams were called for 21 fouls, but the postgame commentary from New York's locker room and the newspapers was to credit the Pacers for being so rugged.

“I don't think we're playing any different than we've played all year,” West said, shrugging. “You know? Maybe people haven't seen us play much. We're not playing any different than we've been playing. Yesterday's game, we've played like that 50 times this year.”

Play like it a few more times, and the Pacers will be playing in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.