Roy Hibbert finished 10th in Defensive Player of the Year voting. I didn’t list him among the top three of my fake ballot, in part because his own head coach, Frank Vogel, answered an admittedly unfair either-or question by reluctantly concluding that Paul George had emerged as the Pacers’ best candidate for that award this season.
But, holy cow, did Hibbert announce himself to a national TV audience that might have ignored the Pacers this season, including during their first-round win over the Hawks. Hibbert finished with five blocks and played a huge role in holding the Knicks to just 15-of-34 shooting in the restricted area, per NBA.com. There will be nights when the Knicks miss an unusually high number (for them) of 3-point shots and midrange jumpers, and Carmelo Anthony is going through a streak of such nights right now. But if an opposing defense controls the paint like the Pacers did last night, New York will have to work very hard to win even when more of the jumpers fall.
Hibbert’s de facto strategy against the pick-and-roll is to drop back into the paint as his man sets a pick for an opposing ball handler. Hibbert’s goal is to cut off the opposing point guard while simultaneously tracking the screener rolling hard to the rim. It’s a strategy that can yield some tricky midrange shots, and in the first half, Raymond Felton dribbled right at Hibbert and lofted a couple of successful floaters over him. That’s not a disaster; the Pacers are playing the percentages, rightly confident that allowing contested midrange shots is better in the long run than allowing dunks and open 3-point looks.
But when Hibbert arrived in the locker room at halftime, George Hill, the point guard defending many of those pick-and-rolls in tandem with Hibbert, had a message for the big fella, Hibbert told me after the game. In polite terms, Hill wanted Hibbert to come out an extra couple of steps to corral Felton higher on the floor. In impolite terms: “George Hill told me to get the fuck up on those screens,” Hibbert said. “Obviously, he doesn’t want his man to score.”
And so in the second half, Hibbert crept out to the top of the key, dangerous territory for a 7-footer who admits he’s something of a slowpoke. And yet over and over, Hibbert tracked New York’s ball handlers as they ventured toward the rim, swatting shots with two raised arms — and without yielding a passing lane to the rolling Tyson Chandler (or Kenyon Martin). It was a masterful performance. “I mean, they gave me all this money, so I might as well try to do everything,” Hibbert joked after the game. “I gotta stop the ball, stop my man from scoring, go straight up, and get the rebound.”
Some more pertinent observations from yesterday's game:
• This was my first playoff game at Madison Square Garden this season. It was nice to be reminded that MSG has a very, very loud playoff gear.
• The power forward matchup between David West and Carmelo Anthony, and how the two teams approach defending that matchup, will produce a lot of little ongoing battles on both ends of the floor. The outcome of those battles will go a long way to deciding this series. One such battle concerns the Pacers’ determination to brutalize the Knicks, and Anthony specifically, via post-up attacks. West attacked Anthony almost cautiously in Game 1, at least until the fourth quarter, and he’ll step up that bullying as he gets comfortable in this series. West went at Kenyon Martin more aggressively for portions of the game, and Tyler Hansbrough wasted no time in bashing Anthony with some back-to-the-basket shoulder blocks. Melo is a pretty stout post defender, but he’ll need help against these guys.
And that’s where the battle starts. The Pacers believe they can get some clean 3-point looks against the Knicks by drawing that help and kicking the ball out against a defense that allowed opponents to shoot 37.6 percent from deep this season — just league average. The Knicks believe they can contest those 3-point looks by rotating around the floor like madmen, and prevent them altogether by harassing the Pacers’ post-up players into crippling turnovers. New York can generate those turnovers by fronting, contesting entry passes, having a help defender dart in for a well-timed swipe at the ball as West and Hibbert back down, or by having a defender ready behind any attempted lob pass. Only four teams forced turnovers more often, per possession, than the Knicks, and they goaded the sometimes careless Pacers into 16 cough-ups in Game 1. “Sixteen is too many,” Paul George said afterward. “Just too many.”
• New York is especially dangerous in transition against Indiana because the Pacers typically want George defending Melo, only Melo usually defends a different player — West — on the other end. That means as New York shifts to offense, Indiana players have to scramble around to find the right assignments. Sometimes they won’t have time, leaving West to struggle against Anthony’s quickness or producing some other mismatch. And if New York nabs some steals or other live-ball turnovers, they can sprint up the court before anyone spots Anthony trailing the play for a 3-pointer.
The Pacers know they have to be careful with all this cross-matching, but they also believe they can benefit from it themselves. During one first-quarter sequence, the Knicks got caught with Pablo Prigioni on George, and the Pacers responded with an immediate post-up for George that led to an open 3-pointer for the beastly Lance Stephenson. “It goes both ways,” George says of the transition matchup panic.
• Spend a few weeks away from it, and you forget how majestic Mike Woodson’s goatee is in person.
• Celebrity Row included Craig Robinson, the comedian best known for playing Darryl Philbin on The Office, only Robinson was six or seven rows back in the stands. Does Celebrity Row extend that far? Actor Andrew Garfield was in the front row almost exactly at midcourt. Robinson deserves better!
• Every game will have one outlier, and tonight it was D.J. Augustin going off for 16 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including 4-of-5 from deep. Augustin struggled for much of his first season in Indiana, shooting just 35 percent overall and briefly losing his rotation spot to Ben Hansbrough. But Vogel has been leaning a bit more on Augustin in the playoffs, and Augustin is now a respectable 11-of-29 (38 percent) from 3-point range in the postseason.
He’s also playing more alongside starters Hill, George, and Stephenson; he’s already logged 38 playoff minutes together with Hill after the duo played together for just 133 total in the regular season, and the three-man combinations featuring Augustin and two of the Hill-George-Stephenson combo are all seeing much more time in the playoffs.
I asked Augustin after the game if it felt good playing more with the starters after a hit-and-miss season. “It wasn’t a hit-or-miss season for me, first of all,” Augustin said, clearly displeased with the question. “I just didn’t get the playing time. But I didn’t complain. I’m happy to be on this stage and playing well, and it’s always fun to play with George [Hill].”
• I ran into Gerald Green in the hallway after the game and asked if we might see him back in the rotation during this series, considering the Knicks play so much small ball. He said that might happen, and that Vogel has told him to stay ready. Green went back to full-time bench duty after struggling to chase Kyle Korver around screens in the Atlanta series, but he said he could defend such players if given more time on them. “I can guard him, I can guard him,” Green said. “But he’s a pro, and he made a couple of shots on me.”
• The Pacers have now won two straight postseason road games wearing their alternate gold jerseys. Note to Indiana management: This is not a coincidence.
• The other West-Anthony-related battle will obviously come when New York has the ball and the Pacers shift George onto Anthony. Melo has a size edge on George, and though Melo shot just 37.9 percent in three regular-season games against the Pacers, he overpowered George on post-up tries, drew fouls, sucked in help defenders, and passed out to shooters in a way that kicked off an effective chain reaction of swing passes.
The Pacers will have to send George some help, and if he gets tired or suffers some foul trouble, they’ll have to rearrange their defense for short stretches and slide West onto Anthony. The Pacers don't want to double Anthony hard; they're too scared of New York’s long-range shooting. In Game 1, they had a help defender (typically Hibbert, as he’s near the rim and quite tall) slide over toward Anthony at the last second — and no earlier — as Anthony picked up the ball and readied a shot in the post. They’d occasionally send a help defender down from the perimeter, but only late in the post-up play, when Anthony had already turned toward the basket — and away from his outside shooters — and began his shooting motion.
Anthony’s post-ups did not produce a bunch of fantastically open 3-point shots for his teammates, and the Pacers generally executed their help schemes well. Anthony will get better at reading those schemes as the series progresses, and it will be interesting to see if Indiana can continue striking the right balance here.
• George might be lighter than Melo, but he’s a fighter. The Hawks tried to exploit George on the block from Game 3 of that first-round series onward by shifting Josh Smith to small forward, and after a rough first game, George adjusted to Smith’s physicality. “Guarding Josh Smith — that was good preparation for tonight,” George told me before the game. “I feel confident guarding the post. Josh obviously isn’t the shooter Carmelo is, but it’s the same general concept of trying to make them shoot tough shots over you.”
• When Anthony does find himself with West or Tyler Hansbrough on him, he’s going to demand the ball at the elbow, face up, and drive by his man to the rim. He’s very effective doing this, but Hibbert was also very effective challenging Anthony at the basket; Melo will be able to find clean passing lanes to shooters out of these drives if he looks for them.
• Jason Kidd had zero points for the fifth straight game and seventh time in his last 11 games. Kidd’s not here to score, and he’s already helped change New York’s culture and the habits of its star scorers. But he has to do something offensively, and he’s doing almost literally nothing. He wants no part of shooting the ball right now. Part of his non-production is linked to New York’s descent into isolation hell — a descent they reversed yesterday, to some degree — since Kidd can only get looks when New York whips the ball around the floor to open shooters. And he's looked credible in short stretches guarding Paul Pierce and other dangerous wing players. But he has to give New York something on offense.
• During one damaging sequence late in the third quarter, Stephenson blew past Kidd on the pick-and-roll, dished to Augustin for a layup, and then stole a crazy midcourt pass from Kidd in transition. The Pacers got a 3-pointer out of their subsequent possession. That hurt, a lot.
• Hibbert on Saturday tweeted a photo of what may or may not have been a young woman pooping in the street that night in New York. I asked him where this had happened. The answer: the Meatpacking District. As if any New Yorker needed further proof the Meatpacking District is awful.
• One reason Kidd’s minutes and production are down: Iman Shumpert is turning into a player. The Knicks will need him in this series, since he’ll defend George, and since the Pacers will hide West on him when New York has the ball. New York ran some plays early to get Shumpert the ball on the move, a way of challenging West’s foot speed, and they even gave Shump a chance to run some shaky pick-and-rolls. “He’s got to be more of a playmaker,” Woodson said before the game when I asked about the Shumpert-West matchup, “especially in terms of not letting West off the hook.”
• The Pacers scored 110 points per 100 possessions in this game, a mark that would've just about led the league in the regular season. That’s the other big takeaway here: The Pacers finished just 19th in points per possession for the season, but they were a borderline top-10 offense after the All-Star break, and if they can score at that level, they're going to be very tough for the Knicks. Indiana really hurt New York in the post, they attacked Anthony in the pick-and-roll, and they found some very bad gaps in the Knicks’ defense — missed rotations, botched pick-and-roll coverages, open corner shooters — once they threw some jabs at it. New York is going to have be cleaner on that end.
• Thing to watch: New York got some very good looks early by running pick-and-rolls on the side of the floor, getting into the middle of the paint, and kicking to shooters on the other side of the court. If the Pacers can’t keep those pick-and-rolls on the side of the floor where the Knicks start them, New York will be able to do damage with them, especially with Anthony as the screener.
• New York was minus-7 in about five minutes in which they paired their two traditional rotation big men, Chandler and Martin, per NBA.com. New York shot just 1-of-7 with the two bigs on the floor, and they clearly struggled a bit with some spacing issues. Woodson said the Knicks will put in some new sets in practice tomorrow to deal with that issue.
• During one commercial break, the in-arena entertainment consisted of a dog running very fast and jumping very high to catch lots of Frisbees. Sometimes the owner/Frisbee-tosser would even hunch over, so that the dog could leap onto his back and use it as a springboard for an even higher jump. This was delightful, especially since the Knicks don't offer any in-house mascot entertainment — inflatable or otherwise. Dogs are awesome.