Paul George had just turned 5 when Miller somehow scored eight points in 8.9 seconds to deliver a stunning victory over the Knicks in Game 1 of the ’95 Eastern Conference Finals in Madison Square Garden.
Lance Stephenson was 4 years old, certainly born but not quite ready, when Miller gave Spike Lee the choke sign after scoring 25 of his 39 in the fourth quarter in Game 5 of that same series.
Future Georgetown center Roy Hibbert was a mere 8, and probably stood only about 6-2, when former Georgetown center Patrick Ewing missed a layup at the buzzer in Game 7 in ’95, enabling the Pacers to ring the bell, baby.
Even the old man of the current Pacers, David West, was coming off his freshman season at Xavier the last time these teams met in the postseason, when the Pacers beat the Knicks to reach the NBA Finals for the only time in franchise history in 2000.
To many of us, Pacers-Knicks is a magical rivalry borne from some of the most physical, combative, competitive and dramatic playoff series in NBA history.
To the Indiana players involved, it’s something else entirely. This series that begins Sunday in Madison Square Garden, the first in 13 years between these two teams, will be about writing some new history.
And here’s what the Pacers need to do to produce a happy ending:
>> Stay true to their identity
The Pacers are not a glamour team. They are about defense and rebounding, pounding the post offensively and using their size to full advantage. In closing out the Hawks with victories in Games 5 and 6, they held Atlanta to 33 percent shooting overall, 18 percent from the 3-point line, and an average of 78 points. They outrebounded Atlanta 104-63.
“When it counted, we made the plays on the defensive end. … We made them a bit uncomfortable, made them finish through us, over us,” said David West. “I thought they had to use more energy than they had the previous games to score.”
West and Roy Hibbert combined for 80 points in those two victories as the offense took up residence in the lane. That must continue against a small New York front line.
>> Contain New York’s 3-point attack
The Knicks led the league in 3-pointers attempted (29 per game) and made (11) and were fifth in percentage (.376), so that quite obviously is the key to their offense.
The Pacers led the NBA in 3-point defense, yielding a .327 percentage, and generally won the battle during the regular season. The Knicks shot just 26 percent from the arc against the Pacers (27 for 104).
>> Manage the matchups
Carmelo Anthony led the league in scoring (28.7) but didn’t have much luck against George. In three matchups, Anthony averaged 22 points but needed 66 shots to get 66 points (making 38 percent) and was just 4-for-17 from the 3-point line.
The other matchups, however, could get confusing because the Knicks start a three-guard lineup with Pablo Prigioni, Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert, using Anthony at power forward and Tyson Chandler at center. With an obvious lack of size, the Knicks will try to compensate with quickness, transition buckets and side-to-side movement to create open 3-point looks.
The problem for New York is trying to contain Hibbert and West with just one big man. The Pacers pounded Atlanta’s small lineup but struggled when the Hawks went bigger. Will Knicks coach Mike Woodson have something similar up his sleeve? One potential wild-card is Amar’e Stoudemire, who may return early from March knee surgery at some point in the series.
>> Survive the bench minutes
Throughout the first-round series, Atlanta seized control once the Pacers went to the bench (late first quarter and late third quarter). In Game 6, they very nearly wiped out a 19-point deficit with a 21-7 run in the fourth quarter before the starters dug in and shut the Hawks down for the final 2:40.
The Pacers’ reserves combined to shoot 44-for-149 (.295) and average a paltry 22 points in the series. New York, on the other hand, has an explosive, experienced second unit featuring Sixth Man award winner J.R. Smith and veterans Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Steve Novak.
Smith will be a particularly daunting matchup that likely will require much of George’s attention when he isn’t guarding Anthony. Vogel shook up the rotation in the Atlanta series, going to a three-guard rotation, but may need to re-introduce either Sam Young or Orlando Johnson to the mix for better matchups against the Knicks.
>> George must channel his inner Reggie
For reasons only he can know, George has been abysmal on the road, playing with an entirely different approach, settling for perimeter shots, not attacking the basket and generally playing with a passivity he abandons at home.
During the regular season, he shot just .391 overall on the road, .292 from the 3-point line. In three games in Atlanta, he shot 12-for-37 overall (.324) and 7-for-25 (.280) from the arc, averaging just 13.7 points.
Comparing George to Miller at this point in his career is perhaps a bit premature, but like his predecessor George carries the mantle of stardom into this series and the spotlight will shine on him more than any of his teammates.
Miller found a way to feed off the negative energy in the hostile environs of the road and turned Madison Square Garden into the platform that launched him into the Hall of Fame. That’s a history lesson George would do well to learn from, and quickly.