What 2 Watch 4 in Game 2, when the Pacers go for the rare road sweep against the Knicks Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden with none other than Reggie Miller courtside providing analysis for the TNT broadcast:
>> Battle of the X-factors
When teams appear to be evenly matched, series often boil down to unexpected performances from the role players. That certainly was the case in Game 1, when Lance Stephenson had 11 points and a game-high 13 rebounds and D.J. Augustin channeled his inner Stephen Curry to score 16 points in 13 minutes, hitting 4-of-5 from the 3-point line.
The least-experienced player in the lineup has been one of the most important in the playoffs. Stephenson has averaged 9.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists while shooting .524 in the last four games, the last three of which were victories. Paul George said Stephenson “has been one of our best players” the past few games.
With Coach Frank Vogel’s decision to switch to a three-guard rotation, much is being asked of Augustin, a veteran coming off a disappointing regular season. But if he can consistently provide a threat off the bench, he could make a big difference for the Pacers.
The Knicks got 11 points from Iman Shumpert and 12 from Kenyon Martin, but neither really impacted the game. Look for Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland to try to play bigger roles tonight. Jason Kidd is another player to watch; he’s been in a major slump, going scoreless on 0-of-10 shooting in the last five games, and that can’t last forever.
>> Be ready for the counterpunch
As in the Atlanta series, the Pacers threw the first strategic punch, putting the Knicks squarely on their heels with their size and strength advantage in the frontcourt both offensively and defensively. While Indiana has so many quality big men it can afford to keep Jeff Pendergraph on the bench, New York has precious few options.
There was speculation Knicks Coach Mike Woodson might start 6-9 Kenyon Martin at power forward in Game 2 in order to better match up with West and Roy Hibbert, but to do so would mean having no big man available off the bench – unless you count Marcus Camby, which you really shouldn’t. Martin probably won’t start but can expect to get more minutes paired with Tyson Chandler. That would move Carmelo Anthony to his more natural position of small forward, where his primary defender would be the lithe Paul George rather than the burly West.
Woodson said after practice Monday he did not believe the small lineup was to blame for the Game 1 loss, which sounded a lot like Atlanta’s Larry Drew, who needed to see his team get overpowered in the first two games before switching to a big lineup. It was effective, but not enough to overcome the 2-0 deficit.
>> Adjust to the officiating
The Knicks did not outwardly blame the officiating for contributing to their woes in the opener, but made it clear they felt somehow wronged. Raymond Felton suggested the Pacers were purposely attacking Carmelo Anthony’s injured left shoulder, while J.R. Smith complained about a lack of respect from the officials. The Knicks also pointed to Anthony’s foul trouble as an issue, but he somehow managed to play 36 minutes, including the final 10:11 after picking up his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter.
While Hibbert controlled the lane, blocking five shots and altering several others, he needs officials to enforce the principle of verticality – allowing him to go straight up with arms extended while drawing contact – in order to continue to be effective. Given how things went in Game 1, it might not be a bad idea for Hibbert to take the floor with the mindset that he already has two fouls, not to encourage him to become passive, but to require him to be judicious.
“You never know how they are going to call the game especially attacking Roy Hibbert on the pick-and-roll,” Anthony said. “It seemed like they were letting Roy Hibbert be a lot more aggressive than the norm but we will make our adjustments.”
>> Beware the law of averages
Simply put, the Knicks have too many good players playing badly. They’re bound to break out and when they do, the Pacers need to be fully braced.
The NBA’s leading scorer, Anthony has shot 32 percent overall, including 2-for-22 from the 3-point line, in the last four games. Against the Pacers this season, he has shot 37 percent overall, 24 percent from the arc.
The NBA’s Sixth Man award winner, Smith has shot 29 percent in three games since returning from his one-game suspension.
Kidd, one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in league history, hasn’t made one in five games, going scoreless in 117 minutes.
If all three continue to slump, the Pacers could make short work of the Knicks. But there’s a reason it’s called the law of averages, and not the neighborhood association covenant of averages: sooner or later, it will be enforced.