NEW YORK -- The Knicks dropped their sixth straight game at home, and fourth in a row overall, to the Pacers, 103-96, in overtime. Though the Knicks lost this first rematch of last season's second-round playoff foes in the East, the game offered a few signs of hope for a team skidding off the road of Eastern Conference contenders.
The Knicks walked the talk of defense. It wasn't pretty -- self-realization often comes out of ugly mistakes -- but in slogging through a tightly-played loss, the Knicks may have found a path out of the 3-8 hole in which they now find themselves. Perhaps they were spurred by the Pacers' league-leading defense, or maybe they finally started buying what coach Mike Woodson is selling, but New York offered up its best defensive effort of the season. And unlike the narrative that only Iman Shumpert can play defense, the entire team was involved. J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin double-teamed, forcing Lance Stephenson into a key turnover in the third quarter. Carmelo Anthony blocked Paul George while defending him one-on-one on a breakaway and later poked away another George drive in the closing minutes of regulation. Even Andrea Bargnani bodied up Roy Hibbert, limiting the Pacers center to a 2-for-5 shooting night. New York limited the Pacers to 37.9 percent shooting for the game, and while that wasn't enough to topple a contender playing on almost all cylinders right now, the approach offered a potentially-winning approach for a team in desperate search of one.
"I can't fault [the] effort," Woodson said after the game. "On the stat sheets, we pretty much played them even. I'm proud of how we competed. That's something I hadn't seen a lot this early season."
For one night, all the miscommunications, missed assignments and listless rotations that had plagued the Knicks since Tyson Chandler exited with a broken fibula were absent. In their place were players moving their feet, Kenyon Martin directing teammates around the paint, and rebounding work (led by Anthony's 18 boards) that limited the Pacers to 13 second-chance points.
Minus Chandler and now Raymond Felton (pinched nerve in his hip), the Knicks have been playing little more than lip service to the notion of defense and have stagnated on offense, seemingly trading Melo post-ups with wild J.R. Smith drives that have produced little but frustration. That's to be expected for a team down two starters who may not be central offensive cogs but offer the spacing to make New York's offense somewhat more fluid.
While the ball moved well Wednesday night, thanks in large part to Udrih (more on that later), shooting 37 percent is not going to win you many games. Defense will, especially when played at Wednesday night's level.
"We can't be sitting in the locker room talking about effort," Smith said. "That's one thing you can't teach. You've got to play through it, no matter who is calling plays. Effort shouldn't be our problem, and that's defense, and we [haven't been] playing it. Our defensive backbone is Tyson, and Tyson is not here right now. Individually, we've got to take pride in guarding the ball, guarding our man. We have to enjoy stopping the other team."
Paul George ... doin' work. Superstars can't dominate every game, but they have that uncanny ability on slow-developing nights to pace themselves enough -- score here and there, play a little defense -- that by the end of the night, a scoreless first quarter can become the 35-point, five rebound, four-assist, five-steal night that Paul George whittled before taking the Pacers home in overtime.
None of those points were more important than the three free throws he canned with 5.2 seconds remaining to tie the game at 89 after being fouled on the elbow beyond the three-point line by Iman Shumpert. "I told Iman that I'm sure they are going to give [George] the ball ... but he kind of lazily played it," Woodson said. "The worst that can happen is that he hits a three over you and it goes into overtime like it did, but you can't foul him."
Replays showed a light tap at most from Shumpert to the elbow of George, but it was enough to get Indy's star to the line, where he calmly tied things up before outscoring the Knicks (9-7) by himself in OT.
"Even as he has become our go-to guy, he's still very new at crunch time moments for us and he showed another step, to be able to make plays at crunch time," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. "That guy's got big guts."
It wasn't explosive, but George's "quiet" excellence carried the Pacers on a night they seemed destined to lose.
Moving day. Beno Udrih averaged less than six minutes per game prior to Wednesday's loss to the Pacers. But in logging a season-high 38 minutes, the 11th-year veteran offered a solution to the Knicks' offensive struggles. Put simply, Udrih moved the ball. Initiating the offense early, Udrih found the people he was supposed to find (Melo, Smith) while also keeping in mind the other two players on the floor. Kenyon Martin's two early buckets in the first quarter didn't change how the Knicks played, but it made him a viable option the Pacers had to defend.
Also key was keeping Bargnani involved. Unlike the Knicks' loss to the Pistons, when Bargnani rarely saw the ball after a solid first half, Bargs remained a part of the offense. No, a 4-of-16 shooting night wasn't the desired effect, but keeping him active as a floor spacer helped.
True, many of the passes led to missed shots, but at least there was passing, at least there was an attempt to re-focus Indiana's defensive efforts on all five Knicks, not allowing the Pacers to load up on the usual customers. Against a team less committed on the defensive end of the floor, that ball movement should pay off.