May 15, 2013 1:50 AM EDT
INDIANAPOLIS – The ball swung around the perimeter, and Paul George suddenly popped to the top of the key. Suddenly, George made his endless arms available, received a pass and swiftly attacked to the heart of the New York Knicks’ defensive wall on Tuesday night. The biggest game of his NBA career, and George had blown past Carmelo Anthony and leaped with two hands.
Only, George was smacked across the back of his head by Anthony, and smacked into him had been an aching stinger. It sent him to the floor, but his relentless and inspired play all night led everyone to believe he would get up and keep attacking the Knicks.
When George stood after his fall, he closed the Pacers’ 93-82 win over the Knicks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. For George, this had been the most critical performance of his career, in the ultimate must-win situation: 18 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two blocks. Most of all, George knew he had to snap out of the stinger Anthony laid on him in an attempt to block his shot.
“I had to get up and I had to play through that,” George said in a private moment in an empty locker room.
From Game 1 to Game 4, George has hounded Anthony at every dribble, every turn, and forced a predictably aggressive Anthony to nine of 23 shooting on Tuesday. Between Saturday and Tuesday, memories flooded back of last year’s inability to win Game 4 against the Miami Heat in these conference semifinals. Whatever the outcome this time, it centered on if the Pacers would finally take control of a series to reach their first Conference Finals since 2004 or if they’d become complacent between Games 3 and 4 and lose grasp.
Around the Pacers’ locker room, maintaining homecourt advantage was precious, because there would have been fear going back to New York tied in the series. Now, these Pacers have moved past last season’s obstacle, pushing the Knicks to the brink of a season that started magnificently with hot shooting and MVP candidacy out of Anthony.
“We didn’t want to give them homecourt [advantage] back, and this makes the series a lot different now: From 2-2 to 3-1,” George told RealGM. “We didn’t want to play with that pressure – we wanted to put that pressure on us. It is the biggest game thus far in [my career], because I knew coming in that I was going to have a tough task going against Carmelo for us to be victorious.”
George revered Anthony growing up, and he’s always wanted to emulate ‘Melo’s rise in the NBA. And George knows this: What can separate their tracks in the league is how he influences games, influences opposing offenses, with his defense and passing – especially on a Tuesday when he shot just six of 19.
Sometimes, George twiddles his left hand on his way back on defense. He’s dealt with a left pinkie injury, but the issue is nothing more than an annoying sprain and won’t require a procedure in the offseason, a league source told RealGM. There is no animosity between him and Anthony, and yet in George’s mind there are possessions within games now when he tells himself the league’s scoring leader won’t get a clean shot away.
“I know I make it tough,” George said. “I’m not interested in trash talking. I’m not a trash talker. ‘Melo is actually somebody I look up to because he’s an elite guy and where I want to be at in my career, as far as his superstar status.”
For now, the Knicks have shown no sign of consistent rhythm on offense. J.R. Smith needed 22 shots for his 19 points and Ray Felton put up 16 attempts for his 14 points. As a team, the Knicks again shot just 35 percent, leaving Anthony to say flatly: “Our offense has been s--t.” And when it wasn’t Roy Hibbert dominating inside, it was George Hill scoring 26 by constantly getting into the paint.
Shooting hasn’t always been pretty for George in this postseason, but he’s already rivaling LeBron James as one of the game’s most prolific, complete players. On those terrible shooting nights, George is all over the place – defending the opponent’s best, rebounding and disrupting passes. On offense, he doesn’t need solacing.
“It’s on me,” George told RealGM. “It’s everybody around me, everybody telling me to be aggressive. But I got to want it, and I do …
“I do want it.”
The pass had found him in the fourth quarter of his biggest NBA game, and George leaped over all the Knicks and only came down when Anthony swiped him on the back of his head. George wanted to push the Pacers to the cusp of the Eastern Conference finals, wanted to get up from that smack across the head from the player he revered growing up and mostly wants the pressure in a series against LeBron James.
Paul George understood he had to get up Tuesday night, had to keep playing, and at 23, he’s still coming for everyone.
May 12, 2013 2:47 AM EDT
INDIANAPOLIS – As the clock pushed into early Saturday morning, J.R. Smith awoke freezing, chills running through his body, and sickened with a virus. Treatments had started ferociously then, and the New York Knicks’ doctors began giving Smith fluid, trying anything to get him in playing capacity.
Smith had been consistent offense in the regular season, a Sixth Man of the Year, revitalizing himself as a force the Knicks can’t win without. They need his shooting and the way he creates plays, but he’s settled for jumpers and played unsteady too often in these playoffs. Smith never felt like himself Saturday night, and his voice was groggy and he lacked energy in his shooting.
For Smith, the walk out of the Fieldhouse couldn’t come sooner after the Knicks had lost to the Pacers, 81-72, in Game 3 of this conference semifinals. Smith rose for eight jumpers on Saturday, coming up short on several, and appeared out of place on some offensive possessions. With his head down heading toward the team bus late Saturday, Smith perked up to greet a Knicks official and let out a truth that has haunted him throughout the playoffs: “Just missed shots, man.”
In all, Smith missed eight of 12 from the field, slipping to just 11 makes in 42 attempts for the series. Just minutes into entering the game, Smith already had his hands on his knees and was admittedly winded. Nevertheless, the Knicks badly needed Smith on a night Carmelo Anthony took a beating, took the least amount of shots he has all postseason, and no one else scored more than nine. The Knicks know this is what the Pacers do: Slow the pace, muck up the game and close off the three-point line.
Amar’e Stoudemire did play for the first time since March, logging just eight minutes and wearing bulky casts of ice around both knees on the bench. He’s discussed with Mike Woodson that his limit is 15 minutes, and clearly Stoudemire won’t be the savior of these Knicks and their offense that revolves around how Anthony and Smith attack.
All the time sidelined has given Stoudemire heightened prospective about the Knicks, and he understands the offense’s limitations when Smith doesn’t assert himself, doesn’t weave through defenses for drive and kicks. Never mind in a Game 3 when two rotation players (Pablo Prigioni, Jason Kidd) went scoreless and Tyson Chandler dealt with foul trouble because of Roy Hibbert’s immense paint control.
“It was difficult for [Smith] out there,” Stoudemire said. “He’s still under the weather, not feeling great. Hopefully he feels better by Game 4.”
Smith, for his part, believes he has either a stomach or nasal virus and he was adamant he’ll play on Tuesday night – whatever treatments await him. “I don’t know, but I’m still playing. Being sick doesn’t really matter,” he said.
From one end to another within the Knicks’ locker room, players believed the Pacers aren’t using any different schemes, but rather they’re simply missing shots. Truth is, Indiana has the bodies, the defensive structure and the manpower in Hibbert, Paul George, David West and George Hill to destruct New York’s gameplan in a way that the depleted Boston Celtics couldn’t in the first round.
“It was a bad offensive game and we couldn’t put the ball in the basket,” Ray Felton sighed.
The Knicks have come to rely upon the brilliant scoring and one-on-one abilities of Anthony and Smith, but Anthony kept getting crowded, kept getting hit, and Smith never shook off the chills. Anthony’s talent has widened the Knicks’ margin for error in stretches of these playoffs, and yet the Pacers are determined to show he won’t have those scoring binges on them. This is where Smith has been so valuable, so consistent in proving opponents’ efforts futile.
Smith had gotten a virus and sat for dinner here Friday night, wondering how worse it would get, wondering if he’d play. Sure enough, there was no flu game out of J.R. Smith on Saturday – just shots going awry, shots falling short, and a teetering, welcomed walk out of the Fieldhouse and into recovery time to find any resemblance of the Sixth Man.
May 06, 2013 1:55 PM EDT
With injuries to Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose dramatically weakening two of their biggest challengers, there aren’t many obstacles left in the path of the Miami Heat.
After a methodical sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, their playoff record is now 26-7 with the Big Three in the starting line-up. In a league becoming more perimeter-oriented, the Heat have the ultimate small-ball frontcourt, with Chris Bosh and Shane Battier spacing the floor for LeBron James. You can’t defeat Miami by playing their game, which is why the massive front-lines of the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies are the biggest threat to the NBA’s newest dynasty.
While most of the league zigged, the Pacers and Grizzlies zagged. Instead of moving towards a four-out offense that spaces the floor for pick-and-rolls and dribble penetration, they run their offense through two skilled big men in the post. As a result, they have remarkably similar rosters and styles of play. They prefer to operate in the halfcourt, pounding the ball inside and grinding out possessions defensively. Even more intriguingly, they both face a challenge in the second round that could prepare them for the Heat: a clash of styles against the second (Kevin Durant) and third (Carmelo Anthony) best small-ball 4’s in the NBA.
A generation ago, most front-lines looked like Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol and David West/Roy Hibbert. Randolph (6’9 260) and West (6’9 250) are two of the toughest power forwards in the NBA, old school players who can brutalize smaller defenders on the block as well as step out and knock down a 15-foot jumper. Gasol (7’1 265) and Hibbert (7’2 280) are two of the league’s biggest centers, defensive anchors who can control the area around the rim and protect it at an elite level. While none of the four have three-point range, they know how to play off each other and create space while operating in the narrow confines of the paint.
With so much size upfront, it’s no surprise Indiana and Memphis are two of the slowest teams in the NBA. In the regular season, the Grizzlies averaged 88.4 possessions per-48 minutes, 30th in the league, and the Pacers averaged 90.2 possessions per-48 minutes, 25th slowest. That continued in the first round of the playoffs, with Memphis/LA Clippers and Indiana/Atlanta turning into half-court rock fights. Both teams dictated the style of the game: the Grizzlies never allowed the Clippers to get out into transition while the Hawks were forced to abandon their small-ball front-court and start Johan Petro by Game 3.
As the Knicks and the Thunder discovered in Game 1 of the second round, it’s hard to go small against power forwards as skilled as West and Randolph. New York only has two conventional big men (Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin) left on their roster and they prefer to use Carmelo at the 4. The problem is that leaves either Carmelo or Iman Shumpert giving up a lot of size against West, who had 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting in Game 1. And while Oklahoma City starts Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, playing both at the same time dramatically impacts their floor spacing, since other teams don’t have to defend Perkins.
The key is to attack the Pacers and Grizzlies where their size can be negated: in transition and when they go to their bench. Forcing live-ball turnovers against both is crucial, since that speeds up the tempo of the game and creates open-floor scoring opportunities. And when their big men are fatigued or in foul trouble, the opposing team has the opportunity to dictate the style of the game. The Pacers went 12 minutes without both Hibbert and West on the floor in Game 1; the Grizzlies went 14 without both Randolph and Gasol. The Thunder and the Knicks have to take advantage of the stretches of the game when they can go small with impunity.
Those stretches are where Indiana (Danny Granger) and Memphis (Rudy Gay) miss their leading scorer from last season. This season, Granger played in only five games due to a knee injury, while Gay was dealt in a salary-cap move at the trade deadline. There are plenty of differences in their games, but both are 6’9+ forwards capable of playing inside and out. Without them, neither the Pacers nor the Grizzlies can put too much firepower on the floor in the rare occasions when they go small. When Randolph was in foul trouble in their first two games against the Clippers, it was a completely different series.
Where the two teams differ is how they’ve adjusted without Gay and Granger. Indiana has run more of their offense through Paul George, their 6’8, 220 small forward. George, who won the Most Improved Player award this season, has thrived in Granger’s absence, averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and assists. Memphis, in contrast, has turned the keys over to Mike Conley, their 6’1 185 point guard. Conley is now their best shot-creator and the player they turn to in end of the clock situations. He went toe-to-toe with Chris Paul in the first round and they’ll need him to dominate his individual match-up against the Thunder, especially with Westbrook out.
If either Memphis or Indiana can get out of the second round, it will have been the perfect warm-up for an eventual series against Miami. For the most part, the Heat do everything the Thunder and the Knicks do, they just do those things better. If the Pacers let J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony take over the game from the perimeter, they will have no chance against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. And if the Grizzlies can’t contain Kevin Durant when Ibaka or Nick Collison is the lone big man on the floor, good luck handling LeBron when Bosh is spotting up for corner 3’s.
Most importantly, if Memphis and Indiana can’t dictate the match-ups in the second round, there’s no way they’ll be able to do so against Miami. In the three years since “The Decision”, only one team -- the 2011 Mavericks -- has forced the Heat to stay big. Against everyone else, Miami’s postseason record with their Big Three healthy is 24-3. A generation ago, “small-ball” was an underdog strategy, a desperate attempt to even the playing field in a sport dominated by centers. That’s how much the balance of power has changed: in 2013, Goliath is the underdog.
Mar 27, 2013
Numbers have indicated that he can handle a bigger role for quite some time, but just a few months before his next contract is worked out Tyler Hansbrough is getting the opportunity to showcase just how effective he can be offensively and on the glass.
Dec 19, 2012
For all his immense talent, the forming of Paul George’s mindset was outlined in high school and college, back when the tireless work wasn’t matched with accolades and attention.
Dec 12, 2012
As we move forward with “Amnesty 2.0,” we will see the fascinating possibilities that the provision brings even as the number of teams and players left dwindles with time.
Oct 26, 2012
The Pacers enter 12-13 as the favorites in the Central Division, while the Bulls, Bucks, Cavaliers and Pistons will likely be in transitional seasons.
Oct 25, 2012
The Pacers won't get caught up in the dismissal of their championship chances. In fact, they're pretty confident in Indiana. The media may not be talking about them, but they're sure the elite teams in the league know they're a team on the rise.
Sep 06, 2012
Doubted by doctors, opponents, coaches, entire cities and Hall of Fame committees, nothing has stopped Reggie Miller or kept him quiet. Twenty five years after he was drafted and more than six years since his last game, there are no more doubters.
Jul 19, 2012
The Heat, Thunder and Lakers appear to be a cut above the remainder of the NBA, but how do the 27 other teams rank?
Jul 11, 2012
While Roy Hibbert may struggle to live up to a contract that will pay him an average of $14.5 million per season, putting him among the NBA’s top 30 highest-paid players, the Pacers actually played their hand rather well.
Jun 29, 2012
Whle the Pistons, Blazers, Bobcats, Nets, Thunder and Bulls headline the 'Great Drafts', the caboose of 'Bad Drafts' is comprised of the Cavaliers, Suns, Bucks, Wolves, Heat and Knicks.
Jun 28, 2012
The Andre Drummond/Perry Jones effect on this draft before we make sense of picks seven through 30 just hours before a flood of draft-day trades shreds every mock.
Jun 21, 2012
The 2012 NBA Draft is a week away and nothing is certain beyond Anthony Davis going to the Hornets with the first overall pick even though several scenarios are beginning to crystalize.
Jun 19, 2012
There are two core reasons why players outperform their pre-draft expectations, while there are two main paths for prospects to underachieve.
May 25, 2012
These Pacers won’t want to hear anything about a moral victory, but the young team represented themselves very well against the most-hyped and newsworthy team in the NBA.
May 23, 2012
While every team in the lottery can bring their Anthony Davis jersey if they win the first overall pick, the gap between Thomas Robinson, Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Drummond is extremely narrow for me and highly intriguing.
May 23, 2012
The Indiana Pacers were in position to steal Game 5 from the Miami Heat until late in the second quarter when Danny Granger landed on the foot of LeBron James after a three-point attempt, spraining his left ankle.
May 21, 2012
While David West and Roy Hibbert went missing for the Pacers, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade played brilliantly and were supported by Udonis Haslem.
May 18, 2012
The Pacers didn’t shoot a high percentage, making 43.4% of their shots, but they were effective because of the best passing we have seen from them in the postseason. They assisted on 20 of their 33 field goals (61%), the highest percentage through eight games.
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