What has J.R. Smith wrought upon his Knicks?
Nine days earlier they were on their way to an easy sweep of the Celtics when Smith, winner of the Sixth Man award and celebrated for his reliability all season, let rip with an unnecessary and self-destructive elbow to the chin of Jason Terry. Ever since that encounter, Smith has gone 12 for 42, Carmelo Anthony has been unable to make layups and the Knicks have lost three of four games.
Their free-fall continued with a 102-95 beating by the Pacers in Game 1 of their conference semifinal Sunday. Indiana out-rebounded their hosts 44-30 overall, shot 52.7% over the final three quarters and led throughout the second half. The Pacers have now won three straight in the playoffs, and they credited this win to lessons learned in the previous round against Atlanta.
``We did some things those last two games defensively to sort of re-find our identity that has carried us throughout the course of the season -- being dominant defensively and with rebounding,'' said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. ``There is a mindset when you win a Game 6 to put that series to bed and just move onto the next opponent. But we spent a lot of time looking at that Game 6, talking about what we did in Game 6 and in Game 5 defensively to dominate and close out that series, and how that has got to carry over to this series.''
Momentum is crucial, and Anthony has none of it. The Knicks star has converted no more than 17 of his 45 shots around the basket in the playoffs. The overwhelming length of the Pacers -- led by Roy Hibbert (5 blocks) -- coerced Anthony to finish just 3 of his 11 shots under the basket in Game 1.
In his last four games, Anthony has gone 35 for 110 from the field (including 2 for 22 threes) with 12 turnovers and 10 assists -- all since Smith single-handedly (or should it be single-elbowedly?) wrecked their mojo. A sore left shoulder continues to bother Anthony, though he said a wrap he wore Sunday helped keep the shoulder in place. Now the question becomes whether the Knicks should shift 6-8 Anthony to small forward in order to avoid confrontations with David West (20 points, 2 blocks) and the other Pacers big men. ``Take out the Xs and Os of the game -- they flat out just played harder than we did today,'' said Anthony, who struggled with foul trouble while going 10 for 28 for his 27 points and 11 rebounds. ``I don't want to panic, overanalyze that situation.''
The Knicks managed to split their four-game season series with the Pacers, but they'll be at risk of surrendering this round if they don't figure out how to deal with Hibbert. He was a negligible 6 for 9 from the field and yet the Knicks didn't know what to do with him. They were so intent on doubling Hibbert down the stretch that George Hill (14 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists) was left alone for a wide open three to boost the Pacers' lead to 97-84 with 3:45 left. One minute later, when another Hill three was grazing the rim at the end of the shot clock, Tyson Chandler bailed them out by pulling Hibbert away from the offensive glass. Ten seconds thereafter, the Pacers were feeding their center on the baseline to disqualify Chandler as Hibbert's free throws restored their advantage to 10 points.
Hibbert underperformed in the opening months of the season after his four-year, $58 million offer sheet had been matched by the Pacers. Now he was so influential amid Indiana's big-men rotation of West, Tyler Hansbrough and Ian Mahinmi -- along with the length of 6-8 small forward Paul George (19 points and 5 rebounds) and aggressive 6-5 shooting guard Lance Stephenson (11 points, 13 rebounds and 3 assists with but 1 turnover) -- that the Knicks went out of character by pairing Chandler and Kenyon Martin together up front.
For their part, the Pacers did much better with a different kind of pairing when D.J. Augustin hit 4 of 5 threes while handling the point as Hill shifted off the ball. The Pacers converted half of their initial 14 threes to further open up the paint for their big men.
The Knicks were off to a strong start around the 5 for 6 opening-quarter performance of Raymond Felton (18 points altogether). Then they forgot all about him: He attempted only a half-dozen shots over the remaining three quarters as the Knicks, who have thrived at the arc all season, were limited to 7 of 19 threes. ``What's crucial for us is being able to limit attempts,'' said West. ``That's what our defense is built on -- making guys take contested two-point shots.''
An aggressive sequence by each team's best player summed up the differences at the defensive end. Needing a basket to squelch a Knicks' rally before it could start, George upfaked from the corner before ricocheting hard in midair against Chandler and Smith. George was slow to stand back up, but his drive banked in to give Indiana a 91-80 lead with 7:18 left. At the other end Anthony was trying to answer with a driving dunk that was snuffed off the back iron by Hibbert, who happened to rake Anthony across the nose with the soft side of his forearm: No snot, no foul.
The Pacers expect the Knicks to try to intimidate George physically in his first postseason as an All-Star. He missed 9 of his 14 shots, surrendered 4 turnovers and used up all 6 of his fouls as the Pacers learned to calm their nerves after a hyped-up opening quarter. They couldn't say that they hadn't been warned.
``I had Brian Shaw address the team (Saturday) in our film session when we introduced the game plan for the Knicks,'' said Vogel of his assistant coach who won championships as a player and assistant with Kobe Bryant's Lakers. ``He talked about (how) it's going to get harder -- the officiating is going to get tougher, the pressure is going to get tougher. Each round that you advance, it's going to get harder and harder. And that's what he said -- you've got to have that poise, that composure and that discipline to execute your schemes at the defensive end and to trust the pass at the offensive end.''
That would be good advice indeed. For the Knicks.