5 Keys: Pacers-Knicks
January 16, 2014
The Pacers and Knicks meet Thursday night for the first time at Bankers Life Fieldhouse since last season's Eastern Conference semifinals. Click through for five key things to watch for in Thursday night's nationally-televised matchup. -by Wheat Hotchkiss, Pacers.com
1. All About Melo
While the Knicks have struggled this season as a team, there’s been no drop-off in the play of their star, Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has almost single-handedly kept the Knicks afloat, and is arguably having the best all-around statistical season of his career. He’s the NBA’s second-leading scorer at 26 points per game, but Anthony’s making an impact in other ways as well. The six-time All-Star is rebounding at a higher rate and turning the ball over less than he has at any point in his career.
The one concern with Anthony is fatigue – he’s playing more minutes than any other player in the league, averaging a career-high 39.3 minutes per game. In last year’s playoff series and an earlier matchup this year, Pacers coach Frank Vogel played Paul George pretty much every second that Anthony was on the floor. This time around, the Pacers will have the services of Danny Granger, another player with the size and athleticism to guard Anthony and give George an occasional break.
2. Finally Healthy
In the Pacers’ 103-96 overtime win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 20, New York was without point guard Raymond Felton and center Tyson Chandler. Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said at Thursday’s shootaround that in his mind the duo are two of the Knicks’ three most important players, along with Anthony. Since Felton returned from a groin injury on Jan. 7, the Knicks are 4-1.
The Knicks have played just six games this season with both Felton and Chandler in the lineup, and only four games in which both players have played 20 or more minutes. Both are healthy and expected to play Thursday. Chandler greatly improves the New York defense, as he’s the only real rim protector on the Knicks’ roster and the most natural choice to matchup with Roy Hibbert. Felton gives the Knicks another perimeter scorer to complement Anthony and is the team’s best facilitator (see his 14 assists in a win over the Heat last Thursday).
3. Ignore the Circus
There always seems to be plenty of drama with the Knicks and the New York media, and this year is no different. The current soap opera storyline revolves around guard J.R. Smith. The NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year’s shooting percentage has plummeted and he’s averaging his fewest points per game in eight years. Smith has been benched for two of the Knicks’ last four games, was recently fined $50,000 by the NBA for attempting to untie opponents’ shoelaces on two separate occasions, and reportedly had a run-in with head coach Mike Woodson earlier this week.
The Pacers are a drama-free group, and can’t allow themselves to get caught up in the Smith circus. If Smith plays, they’ll need to stick to the scouting report and ignore any of his attempts to seek attention/get under the Pacers’ skin. Smith has been a headache mostly for his own team as of late, but he still has the talent to give headaches to opponents if he gets hot.
4. Dominate the Glass
Perhaps the most telling stat from last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals is the rebounding margin. In the Pacers’ four wins over the Knicks, they were an astounding +51 on the boards, outrebounding the Knicks by 12.75 rebounds per game. In their two losses, the margin was much closer, with the Pacers only holding a +1 advantage.
Indiana has a larger contingent of traditional post players, anchored by Roy Hibbert and David West, and should win this battle. But if the Knicks keep the rebounding margin close, they can put themselves in position to steal a win. With the Knicks employing a stretch big man in Andrea Bargnani who can pull West or Hibbert away from the basket, it’s especially important for the Pacers’ wings to crash the glass, an area in which both Lance Stephenson and Paul George typically excel.
5. Paul-Star Time
The marquee matchup in this current iteration of the Pacers-Knicks rivalry is clearly Anthony vs. George. The 23-year-old George has clearly risen to Anthony’s superstar level, and many national analysts might argue that George is the better player. The fans seem to agree, with George currently receiving nearly 200,000 more votes than Melo in the latest All-Star balloting update.
With the Pacers’ balanced roster, Indiana doesn’t necessarily need George to outduel Anthony to win Thursday night. But that’s what happened at the Garden in November, when George scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to lead the Pacers to victory. George seemingly busted out of a mini-slump with a 31-point performance in Tuesday’s win over the Kings. How will he fare in the spotlight of Thursday’s nationally-televised showdown?