INDIANAPOLIS -- It's late in the day for this kind of talk. "At this point I'm reaching," admitted coach Mike Woodson. "Trying to find combinations that will work."
The Pacers beat Woodson's Knicks 93-82 Tuesday to seize a 3-1 lead in this Eastern semifinal because Indiana coach Frank Vogel knows his combinations. He doesn't know who the star is going to be night from night, and yet he is growing ever more confident that it's all going to work out.
While the Knicks were obsessed with shutting down Roy Hibbert and his fellow big men -- and succeeded in doing so, partially -- the Pacers moved within one game of the conference final on the basis of 26 points from point guard George Hill. "Maybe the best game I ever saw him play," said Vogel. When the Knicks came out of halftime trailing 48-34 and intent on attacking the basket, it was Hill who held them off with 14 third-quarter points. "Just great defense, getting every loose ball, keeping his guy in front, making all the winning plays," said Vogel. "He was not only great executing our offense, but he really bailed us out sometimes when we needed somebody to make the play."
A buzzer-beater by Carmelo Anthony (24 points on 23 shots before fouling out with two minutes left) squeezed the Knicks within 54-43, but Lance Stephenson (13 points) and Hill scored the next seven points to stretch their advantage back out to 18. At the end of the quarter Hill was scoring at the end of the shot-clock himself with a deep three that reminded him of his Indiana upbringing, when he grew up pretending to beat the buzzer in his driveway.
This really is an Indiana-styled team of defense, rebounding and selfless passing. The problem for the Knicks is that they have no idea who is going to beat them. Woodson started a big lineup of Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin, who, with 23 combined minutes from Amar'e Stoudemire and Chris Copeland, were able to prevent entry passes to Hibbert (two-for-eight for six points). But the lopsided attention they paid to Indiana's inside game was exploited by Hill, Paul George (18 points and seven assists) and D.J. Augustin (11 points on five shots off the bench).
The Knicks have looked frazzled in their two losses here. Their Game 4 starting lineup hadn't played a minute together previously all season. Pablo Prigioni, who had been starting, was limited to three minutes 26 seconds off the bench. Iman Shumpert was dealing with a swollen knee that passed an MRI yet contributed an 0-for-six performance. Jason Kidd hasn't scored in eight games. Martin (scoreless on three shots) and J.R. Smith continued to deal with the flu.
The Knicks lived by Smith during the regular season and now they're dying by Smith. Since his first-round uppercut elbow to the chin of Jason Terry that threw him and his team into this funk that threatens to end their season, Smith has gone 26-for-91, which would not be a bad percentage if he were a second baseman. But he is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, and in Game 4 he went three-for-10 from the three-point line and seven-for-22 overall. "I want J.R. to shoot," said Anthony. "I need J.R. to shoot."
He needs J.R. to make shots, actually. Anthony was a scoreless 0-for-four in the fourth quarter and -- much like the case of his fellow Olympian Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City -- his teammates can't expect him to carry them. Just the opposite: They must carry him if they hope to win the next three games.
"We have to remain even more confident at this point in time," said Anthony, who has shot 40.9 percent for his 26 points per game in this series. "If we go into Thursday's game with no confidence, then they can walk away with this victory."
Making shots would be the easiest way to cure New York's morale, but Smith isn't the only cause of their self-made problems. How can a team go big throughout the game and still be outrebounded 54-36? George, Hibbert and West combined for 35 rebounds all by themselves. "We've got to figure out how to block out," said Woodson. "That was really what hurt us."
For lack of any better options, Smith drove a runner right at the 7-foot-2 Hibbert and scored over him to bring New York within 69-61 in the fourth, but their last chance was short-lived. Next time down Smith tried the same move and couldn't get the ball to the rim over Hibbert; that lost play was sandwiched by Stephenson's three and an ensuing drive that he celebrated by running to the far corner of the floor like some kind of Kevin Garnett impersonator. The Pacers were on their way to a decisive 11-2 run that was punctuated by a Hibbert tip-in and underlined by the grin he wore repeatedly as he returned to defend. His dearth of scoring appeared to bother him not at all, because he was still influencing the game with 11 rebounds (six offensive) and three blocks as the Knicks were a pathetic 13-of-34 in the paint.
Vogel wasn't fazed when he heard less than an hour before the opening tip that Woodson was changing his lineup. "The beauty of this team: We really don't adapt to other teams," said Vogel. "We do what we do, and our rotation is built to guard small lineups and big lineups."
The Pacers' weakness is their lack of superstar leadership, yet in three of these four games they've turned that quality into an across-the-board strength. "Our effort was just off the charts," said Vogel. "I couldn't be more proud of our defensive effort, our rebounding effort and our willingness to share the basketball. I thought our ball movement was spectacular."
The fine-print disclaimer on the Pacers is that they appeared to be struggling in the opening round against the Hawks, and they could very well struggle again if Smith is able to engage his pilot light in Game 5 at New York. The Pacers aren't going to turn insecure without some help from the Knicks, however. "I still do believe we are the better team," said Anthony, but he may not be able to say that much longer.