Size matters. In every other game, at least.
Pacers center Roy Hibbert dominated the Knicks in Game 1 and did so again here for an 82-71 win in Game 3 Saturday, giving the Pacers a 2-1 series lead. Hibbert had no such positive impact in Game 2, of course, which leaves the Knicks hopeful of seizing the even-numbered games. Based on this anemic performance, their best shot is to extend the series out to a winner-take-all Game 7 on their homecourt with the ball in Carmelo Anthony's hands, in which case all former trends will be moot.
Hibbert led everyone with 24 points and 12 rebounds, though his scoring wasn't necessarily by plan. Much of his best work came by way of tipping in many of his eight offensive rebounds. "To tell you the truth, it takes a beating," he said. "They hit me hard and sometimes I take the hit and keep pushing. They're so strong, they swarm so much that you can't really bring it down and go back up."
The Knicks might have appreciated the compliment about their defense, but they weren't really buying it. "When he made his straight post-ups, I don't think our coverages were where they needed to be," said New York coach Mike Woodson of Hibbert. "We were late on everything. He had his way tonight and that's got to change."
If it changes, then the Knicks may yet have a chance. While Hibbert was converting half of his 18 attempts from the field using a variety of ambidextrous hooks and putbacks, his teammates were going 19-for-62 from the field while refusing to exhibit a killer instinct. The Pacers pulled away steadily while attempting 33 three-pointers (enough to make the Knicks envious, though coach Frank Vogel would have preferred a few less in favor of more post feeds to Hibbert) as Paul George went 4-for-17 and was more effective as a creator (eight assists) than as a finisher (14 points).
"He was the best player on the floor tonight -- and it wasn't just Tyson," said Woodson of Tyson Chandler's defense on Hibbert. "We had two other bigs (Kenyon Martin and Amar'e Stoudemire) that had to play him too. I thought we locked in everywhere else around the floor. When you can't make shots, it's a struggle."
The Pacers led the league defensively this season because their length enables them to routinely lock up the paint while contesting out to the three-point line. They held the perimeter-based Knicks to a season-worst 11 attempted threes, of which only three went down. The Knicks shot 35.2 percent overall, they converted no better than 14 of 35 shots in the paint, and their only scorer in double figures was Anthony (6-of-16 for 21 points and four turnovers), who had no baskets in the fourth quarter.
And yet their deficit was no worse than 65-57 inside the final nine minutes which thanks to a burst of inspiration at the end of third quarter from Stoudemire (3-for-8 for seven points with two rebounds in nine minutes overall), who was making his first appearance since early March, and J.R. Smith (4-for-12 for his nine points), who was feverish in a self-destructive way. Smith looked to be in a daze throughout his 25 minutes on the court, but the Knicks may draw some hope from the way he came through after Anthony was caught in a defensive switch and committed his fourth foul while trying to prevent Hibbert from setting up deep in the post.
As Anthony moved to the bench with 3:17 to go in the third, he was 6-for-13 and everyone else in his colors was 11-for-32 -- and from then on everyone else would have to keep the Knicks in the game without him. They did. Smith took George inside for three leaning drives and Stoudemire beat the buzzer with a transition three pushed ahead for him by Jason Kidd to keep the otherwise constipated Knicks within nine points entering the fourth quarter.
When Indiana was erroneously awarded an inbound after a lunging Tyler Hansbrough tried to throw a loose offensive rebound off Chandler -- the ball rebounded off Hansbrough in what was a difficult call to judge without replay -- the Pacers converted the second chance with a lefty hook by Hibbert that restored their lead to a dozen. It was 72-57 with 6:41 remaining when Hibbert tipped in an errant three by D.J. Augustin, sending the 7-foot-2, 280-pound center celebrating in a sprint back downcourt at a level of relative speed he never could have shown as a rookie, before he had slimmed down on his way to becoming the player who dominated Saturday.
Hibbert, 26, had already gone through a variety of transformations on his way to re-signing for $58 million over four years last summer. The contract appeared to bring out the worst in him over the first half of the season before he simplified his game by focusing on defense heading into the playoffs. "You see the minutes -- Paul played 43, I played 40 -- it's the most I've played in playoffs," said Hibbert. "Coach said whenever Melo was in the game, me and Paul were going to be out there. When Melo checks back in, me and Paul go back in. We want to crowd him and make things as difficult as possible for him."
It was a big night for Hibbert, and it didn't surprise him. He explained that he had told himself, "I'm going to have a great game tonight." That was why he showed up to his postgame press conference suppressing an eccentric grin.
"This is my first time at the podium basically all year," he explained. "A lot of people always wear crazy getups ... I was advised by Paul George and David Benner (the Pacers communications chief) not to set a bad trend by putting on a monocle."
And he held it up between two fingers for all to see. An actual monocle.
"I think this is his best playoff game ever, probably," said Vogel of Hibbert. "He's just oozing with confidence. Everybody wanted to kill him when he was down early in the season, when he wasn't playing with confidence. Now he's playing extremely well at both ends of the court, and that's what he needs. That's what we need."
Will the Knicks be able to stop Hibbert? Will Anthony going to seize ownership of the series? Will Smith ever grow hot in a good way (having gone 19-for-69 since his opening-round suspension against the Celtics)? These are all issues to be resolved in Game 4 on Tuesday.
For now, however, one question hung over the evening, and it was asked by a reporter as Hibbert stood to leave the podium.
"Where does one get a monocle?"