So for once my series prediction was right. The Indiana Pacers disposed of the Atlanta Hawks in 6 games to advance to the second round against the New York Knicks, who salvaged a 3-0 series lead by downing the Celtics, also in 6.
Win or lose, I'm super excited about this series. I grew up watching the Pacers vs Knicks. The first NBA game I can recall is when Reggie Miller scored 25 points in the fourth quarter to steal game 5 at Madison Square Garden in the 1994 playoffs. I've followed every Pacers game since.
This time, there's no Reggie, no Rik Smits or the Davises (Dale and Antonio). There's no Patrick Ewing, no John Starks, and no Larry Johnson 4-point plays. Instead, we have David West, Paul George and Roy Hibbert. Carmelo Anthony, Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler. It's not quite the same, but you can be certain that when these two teams meet in the playoffs, fireworks are likely to ensue.
In March, when the Pacers were playing their best basketball and the Knicks were struggling, this series was a no-brainer. But then the touted Pacers defense regressed and Carmelo caught fight, and the Knicks grabbed the second seed from the Pacers with ease. When the playoffs started, the Knicks looked like heavy favorites against the Pacers (I would have said Knicks in five or six). But now? There are lots of variables at play.
The Pacers found their defense again in games five and six against the Hawks, while the Knicks' offense has taken a noticeable step back. If the Pacers can keep up their defense and the Knicks' streaky shooting fails them a couple of times, I think the Pacers could take this series in six.
Carmelo is a key. He had been on fire earlier in the Celtics series but is now struggling with his shot. Paul George is a great defender but he can't stop Carmelo, especially in the post. David West has the size but not the speed to contain him. It's gotta be a full team effort with guys helping out everywhere if they want to make Carmelo work for his points. News that Carmelo is nursing an injured shoulder could be good news for the Pacers, but with superstars like him it's hard to tell how much of an effect it will have.
JR Smith is a double-edged sword for the Pacers. If his game is on, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year will torch the Pacers, who don't have a single player on the bench that can come close to the type of numbers he can put up. On the other hand, if JR's shot is off and he still decides to play iso ball all the time, that will play right into the Pacers' hands. His attitude could also be a detriment to the Knicks, so it will be up to guys like Lance Stephenson to try and get inside his head.
The third key is Tyson Chandler, whose quickness and athleticism as a seven-footer has traditionally given Roy Hibbert problems. Roy needs to have a big series against him for the Pacers to have a chance. Not necessarily on the offensive end but on the defensive end, boxing out and not giving up any easy second chance points. Roy will need to stay out of foul trouble too.
And of course, there is Amare Stoudemire, who is reportedly eyeing a game three return. I ascribe to the theory that the Knicks are better with him, especially off the bench. He is another huge matchup problem for the Pacers because of his speed and athleticism. Neither David West nor Tyler Hansbrough will be able to stop him, provided he is close to 100%. That is when Jeff Pendergraph is likely to make an appearance.
But if Amare is nothing close to the player he was, then the Pacers could definitely exploit his defense. David West will have a field day with Amare guarding him. There's also the question of chemistry, and it will be interesting to see how he fits in and whether he disrupts the Knicks' rhythm.
Chances are Pacers' coach Frank Vogel will have to really tighten his rotation, especially for the first couple of games, so the Pacers can try and steal one at the garden before heading back to Indiana. They can afford to do that because of the long break between games two and three. Game one will be key.
For some reason, I am confident about this series (which usually spells bad news for the Pacers). The players seem to be clicking at the right time, though this could change in a hurry. But I have faith that this young team can rise to the challenge and steal one in New York, defend home court, and close out the series in six. Even if this goes seven, I think they can still do it.