Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks will head into Game 2 of their second-round series against the defensively dominant Indiana Pacers with the bitter taste of defeat still fresh in their mouths after suffering a surprisingly thorough 102-95 beating in Game 1.
Recent games have seen the Knicks devolve into a predictable, isolation-heavy offense that simply hasn't generated enough good looks to score efficiently. Anthony, mired in a four-game slump in which he has failed to shoot better than 36 percent from the field, has been chucking up contested shot after contested shot as the Knicks offense has ground to a halt around him.
Will Roy Hibbert and the Pacers' remarkably disciplined defense frustrate the predictable Knicks offense yet again, or will Mike Woodson come up with something—anything—to take the training wheels off of New York's scoring attack?
Time: Tuesday, May 7 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
Series Record: Pacers 1 - Knicks 0
Key Storyline: The Knicks' Disappearing Offense
All season long, the Knicks survived on offense with a heavy dose of isolation sets. During the 2012-13 season, Woodson's offense finished a whopping 16 percent of its offensive possessions with isolation plays. That number led the league, but apparently, Woodson wasn't satisfied.
The postseason has seen New York utilize isolation sets on nearly a quarter of their possessions.
What was a worrisome quirk during the regular season has now become a cripplingly predictable mistake.
In the first quarter of Game 1, the Knicks actually looked like a team capable of doing some offensive damage. Raymond Felton was orchestrating a few sideline pick-and-rolls that yielded open threes for Chris Copeland when the ball swung back to the weak side. In addition, the return to the drive-and-kick game that complemented New York's one-on-one sets during the regular season returned.
But as the game wore on, the Knicks resorted to a much more stagnant approach that resulted in far too many reckless drives into the Pacers' set defense. With little ball movement, the Pacers' defense dug in, and once in position, Hibbert and Co. shut the Knicks down.
Some portion of New York's offensive struggles in the playoffs has to be attributed to the defenses it has faced. The Boston Celtics were rated No. 6 in the league in defensive efficiency, and the Pacers topped that category by an impressive margin.
Everyone struggled to score against the Pacers and Celtics this season.
But the Knicks are compounding the problem by playing right into Indiana's hands. Without action away from the ball, a few screens and passes from side to side up top, the Pacers defense hardly has to move. And when that happens, it's impossible to catch them out of position.
The Knicks must find a way to generate some offensive diversity, and they've shown they're capable of doing that in spurts. But if New York continues to resort to "hero ball," the Pacers will have no trouble putting up another strong defensive effort.
Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Pacers: Danny Granger (knee, out for season)
Knicks: Steve Novak (back, questionable for Game 2), Amar'e Stoudemire (knee, doubtful for Game 2)
Projected Starting Lineups
Pacers: George Hill (PG), Lance Stephenson (SG), Paul George (SF), David West (PF), Roy Hibbert (C)
Knicks: Raymond Felton (PG), Pablo Prigioni (SG), Iman Shumpert (SF), Carmelo Anthony (PF), Tyson Chandler (C)
The Pacers Will Win If...
They shoot 45 percent or better from the field.
After a regular season in which the Pacers held teams to just 96.6 points per 100 possessions and a true shooting percentage of only 52.1 percent, it's safe to assume that Indiana's defense is going to show up.
And if there was any doubt about that, the Pacers' defensive numbers in the postseason (96.9 defensive rating, 52.4 percent opponents' true shooting percentage) show that this is a committed, consistent group of stoppers.
Offense, though, has been a little more sporadic for these Pacers.
In Games 1 and 2 against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, Indiana shot 50 percent and 49 percent, respectively. It should come as no surprise that the Pacers won those two games by an average of 16 points. But then the Pacers lost two in a row when their offense went cold, hitting just 28 percent of their shots from the field in Game 3 and 38 percent in Game 4.
Get the idea?
When the Pacers can make a respectable percentage of their shots, and even knock down a few threes, they're nearly impossible to beat.
The Knicks allowed Indiana to hit nearly 49 percent of its field-goal attempts in Game 1, and only a couple of late misses when the game was well in hand caused the Pacers' three-point percentage to dip below 40 percent.
If Indiana gets anything close to that kind of offensive efficiency in Game 2, the Knicks will find themselves in a quick 0-2 hole.
The Knicks Will Win If...
Tyson Chandler looks like himself again.
Not only does Chandler captain the Knicks defense from the paint, he also gives them a surprisingly useful offensive weapon against a team like the Pacers. And his value was on full display in the first quarter of Game 1.
But after that, Chandler's bulging disk (or perhaps some other undisclosed injury) appeared to slow him down, taking him out of anything the Knicks did on offense for the rest of the game.
When he's right, Chandler is extremely skilled as a pick-and-roll big man. His screens are solid and he has shown a knack for finishing Felton's lobs when the defense doesn't collapse as he streaks to the hoop. Not only does he pose a threat as a finisher himself, but Chandler also gives the Knicks the option to swing the ball to shooters when helping defenders step in to pick him up when he rolls.
The Knicks utilized Chandler in their offense to great effect throughout the year, but since his injury, Woodson has all but eliminated him from their offensive game.
Admittedly, this is a roundabout way of re-emphasizing the point that the Knicks offense has become too isolation-dependent, too predictable. But Chandler's a big reason why.
It's not his fault if his physical health is preventing him from playing to his full potential, but if the Knicks are to have any hope of solving the Pacers defense, Chandler has to get right—and get involved.
It's really tempting to pick the Knicks to win Game 2. After all, they'll be desperate and motivated, looking to avoid an embarrassing two-game sweep to start the series and avenge a loss they feel was at least partially attributable to some poor officiating.
But the Pacers just showed far too much discipline, balance and organization to go against them.
Hibbert is in complete control of the lane, George can guard Anthony and J.R. Smith and David West has shown that no individual New York big man has the combination of quickness and strength to handle him on offense.
The Knicks have been headed in the wrong direction for some time now, and Anthony's bothersome shoulder injury, along with his horrendous field-goal shooting of late, certainly don't make it seem like they're likely to pull out of their downward dive anytime soon.
Maybe the Knicks will muster one of those vintage offensive explosions that marked the first couple of months of the regular season. Maybe their ball movement will return. And maybe—just maybe—Woodson will call a play once in a while.
But then again, maybe not.
Prediction: Pacers 98, Knicks 94
*All stats via NBA.com, ESPN.com and Synergy unless otherwise indicated.