The Pacers defeated the Knicks 106-99 in Game 6 to secure a 4-2 victory in their Eastern Conference semifinals series. Indiana advances to the Eastern Conference finals where they will face Miami. Game 1 is set for Wednesday.
• Lance Stephenson comes up huge. Pretty, pretty, pretty good timing for Lance Stephenson to have the game of his life.
The third-year Pacers guard did it early and he did it late, scoring nine points in first quarter and another nine in the game’s final five minutes, scoring all of his career-high 25 points in the paint or at the free throw line. Name a Knicks player, and Stephenson got the better of him on Saturday, whether off the dribble, in the key or at the rim.
Tyson Chandler? Too slow to contest an early up-and-under lay-up and too late to step over to cut off a transition drive. Pablo Prigioni? Helpless on a floater in the key. Raymond Felton? Failed to stop the ball in transition, conceding a lay-up. J.R. Smith? Caught napping on a critical fourth-quarter possession for a backdoor cut lay-up and caught holding on an and-one in transition. Carmelo Anthony? No answer for a leaning lefty lay-up that gave Indiana a seven-point lead with less than two minutes to play.
All this from the Pacers’ fifth scoring option, the only member of their ultra-balanced starting lineup who didn’t average double figures during the regular season. All this from a guard who was better known for flashing the “choke” sign at LeBron James than anything he did on the court during the 12 minutes total he played in the 2012 playoffs.
“It’s believable but unbelievable,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He has no playoff experience but he’s got some of the best basketball instincts I’ve been around…The kids got guts and great basketball instincts.”
Stephenson scored only four points and shot just one-for-seven in a Game 5 loss on Thursday, but his basketball instincts clearly sensed that the Knicks couldn’t contain him off the dribble and weren’t in a position to protect the basket area once he turned the corner. Chandler, who didn’t look right health-wise all series, simply wasn’t the back line defender we’re accustomed to seeing, and that posed a major problem considering New York’s other frontline personnel.
“Last game I felt like I played not to my ability,” Stephenson said. “I couldn’t sleep, I was very focused for this game. It showed today. … I just tried to get to the basket and make smart plays.”
All the high-percentage looks added up: Stephenson finished nine-for-13 from the field and seven-for-eight from the line, a sharp contrast to the combined six-for-28 shooting from Smith, Felton and Prigioni.
“He was the difference-maker tonight,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “We give up 25 points to Lance, that’s no knock against him. He had a hell of a game. That somewhat came out of nowhere. He was aggressive, we had no answer for him.”
A highly-touted high school player from Brooklyn dubbed “Born Ready,” Stephenson now finds himself staring down an Eastern Conference finals match-up with James and the Heat. The “choke” seems like ancient history now, but Stephenson remains a fiery, demonstrative player, pointing to the crowd and flexing at midcourt during the fourth-quarter surge that put the Knicks away.
“There’s a lot of old school people who don’t like it,” Vogel said of Stephenson’s antics. “As long as he’s not being disrespectful, I like passion.”
This was a night that would make the old school proud: put pressure on the defense, make them stop you, wrack up fouls, take care of the ball (zero turnovers in 34 minutes), start strong, finish stronger and keep your head throughout a hard-fought elimination game.
All season, the question was: Pacers or Knicks? Knicks or Pacers? Which team in the East would give Miami a run for its money. Turns out it’s Indiana, who stole homecourt advantage in Game 1 and never looked back.
“It’s exciting,” Vogel said, of the franchise’s first conference finals appearance since 2004. “It’s not about getting back at Miami. You’re in the final four, you’re competing for a championship. They’re just the next team that’s in our way.”
• The block heard ’round the world. I can’t say I’ve seen too many blocks better than this one.
With a little more than five minutes remaining in the fourth and the Knicks leading 92-90, Anthony spun baseline around Paul George from the right block and rose to pack a one-hand dunk. Not so fast said Roy Hibbert, who came across the paint to swat the shot at the last possible moment, his left wrist bending backwards and holding steady long enough to flip the ball from Anthony’s hand.
“It was a hell of a block, big play by Hibbert,” Anthony said. “Kind of shifted the momentum a little bit at that point. … Hibbert [does] a hell of a job holding the paint down.”
Stephenson scored the game’s next seven points and the Pacers went on a 9-0 run over the next 2:29.
“He’s the best rim protector in the game,” Vogel said of Hibbert. “No disrespect to the [All-Defensive] First Team members, Tyson Chandler, and Marc Gasol, the Defensive Player of the Year, but Roy Hibbert is the best rim protector in the game.”
• Horrible Knicks endgame. Basketball games are often described as a chess match; if Game 6 had been an actual chess match, the Knicks’ performance in the final few minutes of this game was equivalent to purposefully sacrificing key pieces multiple times and then finally slamming the board in disgust and walking away from the table before checkmate was officially declared.
“This is the first time this team has ever been assembled,” Woodson said afterwards. “To walk away from tonight and say this was a disaster, absolutely not. We had high expectations since training camp…Our goals were to win an NBA title.”
The season, which saw the Knicks win their first division title since 1994 and their first playoff series since 2000, wasn’t a disaster but the final sequence surely qualified. With their postseason livelihoods at stake, the Knicks took way, way, way too long to foul on multiple possessions down the stretch, burning precious seconds off the clock while eventually fouling anyway, eliminating any possible benefit of the oversight. It was the worst of both foul worlds — lose time and concede points — and it hit a true low when they took nearly 20 seconds to foul George in the game’s final sequence and then didn’t have the heart or energy to clear the defensive rebound when he missed the second free throw.
Imagine an alternate universe where the Knicks foul immediately when George rebounded Chris Copeland’s missed three. If George misses both free throws, as he did in real life, New York would have had 25 seconds to make up a six-point deficit. Not easy but not impossible either. This is the playoffs, guys. Playing hard to the buzzer and with optimal strategy in late-game time/score situations should be both givens.