The Indiana Pacers are in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2004 after eliminating the New York Knicks with a 106-99 win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Game 6 on Saturday night.
The Pacers were led by a different player in each of their four wins over the Knicks and in Game 6 it was Lance Stephenson’s turn.
Stephenson, who can be maddening to watch, scored a career-high 25 points on 9-for-13 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds. The New York native had 16 points in the first half and exploded in the fourth when Indiana pulled away in what was the most exciting game of the series.
How can the fifth-most important starter on a team be exasperating to watch? Consider this sequence: Stephenson bricked a three from the right wing, then stole the ball on the ensuing possession and converted an old-fashioned (not exactly something you’d call ‘Born Ready’) three-point play.
In the early going it looked as though the Pacers could run away with a series-clinching victory, but the Knicks refused to go down without a fight. More than four minutes into the second quarter the Pacers held an 18-5 edge on the glass but only had a six-point lead. Indiana closed out the first half well to lead 55-47 after 24 minutes.
New York shot 35.4 percent in the first half and Indiana held a 25-15 rebounding edge. Uncharacteristically, the Pacers hit 50 percent of their shots. As we’ve come to expect, they turned the ball over eight times.
As the Pacers flirted with a finishing punch in the third quarter, the Knicks finally exploded from deep. Indiana did a great job of pushing New York off the three-point line and closing out on shooters all series, but they lost Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith over a 108-second stretch that saw the Knicks go on a 12-2 run. Shumpert and Smith combined to hit four-straight threes to erase a double-digit deficit and tie the game at 72.
The Knicks went 6-for-7 from deep in the quarter and outrebounded the Pacers by four as they took control of the momentum heading into the fourth period. Early in the fourth New York was winning the 50/50 battles, but Indiana owned the last five minutes.
The fulcrum of the game turned out to be Roy Hibbert’s tremendous block on Carmelo Anthony with the Knicks ahead 92-90. The Pacers seemed to have all the energy after the rejection. Stephenson then went on a one-man run to push his team into the next round.
“That block, I think it spearheaded the run they made,” Anthony said at the podium after the game.
Hill Plays, But Isn’t Right
George Hill was active for Game 6 on Saturday night despite missing the last game after suffering a concussion on Tuesday night in Game 4. It’s hard to quantify what his presence meant to the team, but it was obvious that he wasn’t 100 percent.
He finished 2-for-10 and front-rimmed a number of shots, a sign of fatigue and weak legs, but Hill was a game-high +12. He did his job at the line (7-for-7), but went just 1-for-6 from deep (a shot the Pacers will need against the Miami Heat). By avoiding a Game 7, Hill will have some time to rest up and heal before the Conference Finals start.
Carmelo Takes More Heat
Carmelo Anthony seemed to bring all he could with New York’s season on the line, scoring 39 points on 15-for-29 shooting, but all you will hear is how he performed in the fourth quarter. He made just two of his seven attempts with four points and three turnovers with the game in the balance.
“I don’t think it was fatigue and they didn’t make any adjustments,” Anthony said when asked about his rough fourth quarter. “A couple shots were almost in. We got some great looks coming down the stretch, shots that when we take we normally make. We got those looks tonight. We got what we wanted in the fourth quarter, but they just didn’t go down for us.”
Anthony has been dealing with shoulder issues since the end of the regular season, and appeared bothered by them once again in Game 6, and he also turned his ankle in the second half of this one.
More of the blame for this loss belongs on Mike Woodson and the lack of a consistent supporting cast. He has had to hoist an amazing amount of shots just to get the Knicks to the sixth game of a second-round series. Anthony simply looked tired on Saturday night.
A lot went wrong for the Knicks in the second half, but they looked great in the third quarter and received a number of clutch shots from Iman Shumpert and Chris Copeland. The duo combined for 22 points on 7-for-10 shooting after halftime, with Shumpert single-handedly bringing New York back in the game.
After Shumpert scored 16 points in the third quarter, he played less than seven minutes in the fourth quarter and didn’t attempt a single field goal. How can that happen? Anthony is your clear-cut No. 1 (and perhaps No. 2 option as well), but with the season on the line you must at the very least give the hot hand a few chances to extend his run.
Copeland brought great energy to the floor all series, but only got significant time in in the last two contests.
Woodson didn’t have a perfect roster to work with, but you have to question some of the decisions made down the stretch – including time management with the season ticking away.
It was fitting that the Pacers took the podium as a group after Saturday night’s closeout victory given the balance they provide. Consider this: Anthony led New York in scoring in all six games. Each member of the starting five led Indiana in scoring at least once against New York (Paul George did so twice).
That makes them hard to double defensively because any open player can get hot and take advantage of open looks. It killed the Knicks when they doubled-down on Hibbert in the paint and the perimeter combination of George and Hill didn’t even shoot well from the perimeter.
Quite simply, the only way the Pacers can threaten the Heat and advance to the NBA Finals is to receive offensive balance from their first five, defend the three, limit turnovers and get something substantial from their bench.