NEW YORK -- As the minutes dwindled off the clock, as the sold out Madison Square Garden crowd alternated between chants of "M-V-P" for Carmelo Anthony and "Paaablo" for 35-year-old rookie guard Pablo Prigioni, the trio of Roy Hibbert, David West and Paul George stood on the Pacers sideline, bewildered. How did this happen? How did the best defensive team in the league get a 30-2 second half run put on them? How did a Knicks team Indiana had bullied in Game 1 suddenly become the ones bullying them? How, exactly, did they get beat like
Hours later, sitting in front of his locker, body hunched forward, ice bags wrapped tight against both knees, West still struggled to come up with an answer. "The wheels kind of fell off," West said. "They just got rolling. When they go on spurts, when they make shots, they can just put you away."
Indeed, this was the Knicks team that strikes fear in opponents, the team with the firepower to overwhelm you with jump shots in a matter of minutes. Many of Indiana's wounds in Tuesday's 105-79 defeat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals were self inflicted -- a ghastly 21 turnovers, allowing 29 second chance points -- but make no mistake, it was the Knicks who buried the dagger. An ill-fated timeout by Pacers coach Frank Vogel after Indiana had surged to a 64-62 late third quarter lead gave the Knicks a chance to regroup, and sparked one of the most stunning runs of the season. The Pacers picked up a pair of West free throws with under a minute to go in the third and didn't score again until Tyler Hansbrough canned a freebie with 4:48 to play in the fourth, long after the game was decided, long after Vogel had emptied his bench.
"Our rotations were a lot better tonight," Mike Woodson said. "It helps when you find some offense."
That offense abandoned the Knicks in Game 1 and had abandoned them for the last few games of the series with Boston, too. "I thought in the Celtics series it was a struggle to get the ball moving," Woodson said. In the opener against Indiana, the Knicks coughed up home court advantage playing hero ball, operating inefficiently behind Anthony (27 points on 28 shots) and J.R. Smith (17 points on 15 shots), driving into the teeth of Indiana's stingy defense, constantly facing contested shots.
With Smith (eight points on three-of-15 shooting) continuing to struggle Tuesday, with fans in the upper deck booing every miss and bellowing for him to come out, Anthony took over. The weight of a team, a city, was lifted from Anthony's shoulders after the Knicks escaped the first round, but the expectations don't end there. It's conference finals or bust in New York, and Anthony, battling a bum shoulder, is expected to get them there. Deep down, Anthony knew what kind of hole the Knicks would be in with a loss, knew how tough the Pacers played at home. And after a quiet, 10-point first half, Anthony pumped in 11 in the third quarter and another 11 in the fourth, burying a pair of backbreaking three-pointers that sent Vogel searching for subs.
"'Melo caught fire," George said. "They could have won by 50 tonight."
Anthony got a lift from an unexpected source: Prigioni, the Argentine rookie, the man whose pro career spans about as long as Jason Kidd's but who only this season chose to give the NBA a try. Against Boston, Prigioni played the role of pesky defender, racking up nine steals in Games 3 and 4, hounding Avery Bradley, the Celtics' makeshift point guard, all over the floor. When Raymond Felton rolled his ankle late in the third quarter, it was Prigioni on the court to start the fourth. He scored the Knicks first five points, assisted on eight more, and listened, grinning, as his name echoed down from the rafters in the final seconds.
"It was amazing for me," Prigioni said. "I am really happy, but for me it is only about the team. I played in the playoffs in important games on different levels overseas and in the Olympics. It's different, but it helped me and gave me experience to play in different games.
It's a series again, and the Pacers now have three long days to think about this collapse. Inside the Indiana locker room, dejected looks were everywhere, explanations hard to find. "I'm pissed off right now," Lance Stephenson said. Added West, "I thought we had an opportunity to come here and make a statement. We let an opportunity get by us."
Indiana still goes home with home court in its pocket, still able to control its own destiny by winning three games on a floor it was 30-11 on during the regular season and 3-0 in the playoffs. Three months ago the Pacers slapped the Knicks around Bankers Life Fieldhouse, blowing them out by 34 points.
"We'll have a great environment," West said. "We just have to protect our home floor."
A year ago Indiana was shellacked by Miami in the second half of Game 4 of its second round series, a beating that broke their spirit, a beating they did not recover from. They can't afford to let the memory of this loss linger. The veterans, the core, the trio of Hibbert, West and George know this as well as anyone else. And as the final seconds ticked off the clock on Tuesday, an animated Hibbert refused to let the Pacers go into the locker room without delivering one final message.
"I told them to get some rest and get ready to go back to work," Hibbert said. "We have to win [the next] game, we have to win this series."