By CLIFF BRUNT
The similarities are downright eerie.
Lower-seeded Indiana entered Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals up 2-1 against Miami. The Pacers gained homecourt advantage by taking a game on the road. The Heat’s No. 2 scorer, Dwyane Wade, had been playing below his usual standard, adding fuel to hopes that the Pacers could move on.
Lower-seeded Indiana enters Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals up 2-1 against New York. The Pacers gained homecourt advantage by taking a game on the road. The Knicks’ No. 2 scorer, J.R. Smith, had been playing below his usual standard, adding fuel to hopes that the Pacers could move on.
Now, let’s go back to last year.
That’s what LeBron James did to the Pacers when it counted — 40 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists in Game 4, in a game the Heat had to win. Just as important, Wade returned to form. Miami regained its swagger, won the game and took control of the series. The Heat closed out the Pacers in Indianapolis in Game 6.
Now, fast forward. No, the Pacers don’t have to deal with LeBron at this stage. But NBA scoring champion Carmelo Anthony is plenty dangerous, and Smith is capable of shooting the lights out and lifting an offense in much the same way Wade can. So, though the Pacers are in a great position, we know the series isn’t over yet. Miami proved that last year. For that reason, there is so much more than a game on the line Tuesday night.
We learn Tuesday night whether Indiana is truly any better than last year’s team, whether the young, hardworking Pacers from a year ago have developed into a true contender.We learn if they are any different than the Atlanta teams over the years that got to the brink but ultimately did nothing. We learn if this team goes beyond just being talented and now knows how to seize opportunity. We learn if Paul George is ready for the next stage of stardom, facing a determined Anthony who knows that the perception that he is a scorer who doesn’t win big follows him around.
That gigantic step that everyone has been waiting for is upon us.
I think the Pacers are a little better that they were at this point a year ago, and I also believe the Knicks aren’t quite as good as the Heat were last year. Indiana should win and go up 3-1, but there are a few things still to consider.
Indiana didn’t shoot well in Game 3. Yes, it’s good that the Pacers won without shooting well. But they can’t expect to get away with shooting that badly again. They can’t expect to have such a dramatic rebounding edge and they can’t fling that many threes. The Pacers can’t play the way the Knicks want them to play. Indiana got back into the flow of Game 3 when it looked inside first, sometimes even when New York was shaky in defending the perimeter. Rhythm threes are more important than open threes, strange as it may sound. Once Indiana went back to focusing on David West and Roy Hibbert and using them to set up opportunities, the threes started falling and the Pacers took off.
The Pacers also can’t expect New York’s high-scoring offense to fail so miserably again. After listening to New York’s players in the locker room, it’s pretty clear that they know where they went wrong in Game 3. They need to move the ball better and avoid so much one-on-one play to give themselves a chance.
Game 3 showed how important Smith is to the way the Knicks system works. He’s been struggling. His efforts to focus on the drive to get out of a slump disrupted the team’s entire offense. If he’s focused on attacking the basket, the ball doesn’t move as much, spacing suffers and New York’s offense looks shaky. I know you tell shooters to try to get easy buckets, then move back out to get comfortable again. In Smith’s case, I think he needs to just be Smith. It will be interesting to see how he approaches this game.
There’s plenty to learn about the Knicks, too. We find out how tough they are, and whether they have the makeup to really challenge for an NBA title. If they get mauled in the paint again, we know they’re not ready. To win, the Knicks mush show the kind of resolve needed from a team that can challenge Miami for the East title. They, too, would clear a significant hurdle with a win.
I was in the Knicks’ locker room after Game 3, and though the players said the right things, I was uncertain whether their relaxed state was confidence or apathy. There is usually a bit of unease or tension, perhaps a bit of anger in the losing locker room of a team that expects to be great. I sensed none of that after Game 3. But maybe that’s their way.
Bottom line? The Pacers went through the past year trying to be better than the team that failed at this stage against the Heat. Win tonight, and it’s 3-1 and very difficult to blow this one. Lose, and it’s 2-2 and New York regains homecourt advantage. Tonight’s winner probably wins the series.
Tonight, we find out which rising Eastern Conference power is for real. My money, if I was a betting man, would be on Indiana.