With 75 percent of the NBA's Final Four being set, it only feels right that this knockout, drag-out series between the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers is our only straggler.
Serving as almost a reluctant throwback to the teams’ 1990s battles, the two sides head into Game 6 on Saturday worn down—or at least looking worn down. Thursday night’s Game 5 affair, in which the Knicks extended the series to six games with a 85-75 win, was arguably the ugliest-played game of the entire postseason.
Both sides came out so sloppy that it took the Pacers almost literally giving the Knicks the game for them to take it. And while New York will take any victory over an Indiana squad that has owned this series, it goes without saying that the Knicks will have to step up to send the teams back to Madison Square Garden for Game 7.
That will be easier said than done. The Pacers are yet to lose in five games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this postseason, and they are sure to give fans plenty of motivational ploys to get up for this game. Decibels might never reach Oracle Arena levels, but the Knicks are going to have to earn this one.
With that in mind, here is a quick breakdown of a couple things to watch and our prediction for Saturday night’s outcome.
When: Saturday, May 18, at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
What to Watch For
Can the Pacers Adjust to Life Without George Hill?
When the Pacers announced that Hill would miss Thursday's Game 5 with a concussion, many saw it as a possible turning point in the series. Even though Indiana walked into Madison Square Garden with a 3-1 lead, the team's rotational ecosystem was so fragile that any major change could do irreparable harm—especially considering Hill's role as a primary ball-handler.
If the first game of the post-Hill experiment is any indication, those fears might have been understated. The Pacers offense cratered without its point guard on the floor, becoming an amalgam of bad shots and turnovers that would make even the worst version of Indiana's inconsistent offense blush.
They shot just 36.2 percent from the field and had exactly one player make half or more of his shots—Ian Mahinmi, who was a robust 2-of-2 from the field. One quick look at the Pacers' NBA.com shot locations chart from Thursday night and you want to charge through your computer screen like a raging bull.
That's even before we get to Indiana's dreadful 19-of-33 performance at the free-throw line.
However, bad shooting nights can happen with or without Hill. More disconcerting was the seemingly never-ending stream of turnovers giving New York extra possessions. Six different players had multiple turnovers on Thursday night, as the Pacers finished with 18 giveaways.
On the surface, this looks like just another bad game from a wildly inconsistent offense. Remember, these are the same Pacers who looked like one of the five worst offensive clubs in basketball history in their 105-79 loss in Game 2. They have a turnover rate of 19.8 percent for this series—which is dreadful—but it is also greater than their 19.2 percent rate in Game 5, per NBA.com.
So no need for panic, right? Well, not so much. Saying the Pacers offensive attack is fine because it kept a similar turnover rate would ignore how those costly cough-ups happened.
Without a go-to primary ball-handler in Indiana's lineup, the Knicks all but abandoned their risky trap-heavy schemes. The aggressiveness throughout the series has helped create turnovers but has also left New York susceptible to giving up wide-open jumpers—ones with which the Pacers offense thrived.
Indiana's turnovers on Thursday were just plain sloppy indicators of a struggling team trying to find its way without an integral cog in the scheme. D.J. Augustin, Hill's replacement in the starting lineup, knocked down a few threes but looked lost at times when serving as the team's primary caretaker.
There was also a semi-amusing stretch where Gerald Green—suddenly in the rotation after being absent for nearly the whole series—turned the ball over three times in about four minutes of game time in the third and fourth quarters.
With Hill being listed as doubtful for Game 6, Indiana is going to have to adjust and to simply be smarter. A repeat of Game 5's debacle would be a one-way ticket back to Madison Square Garden for Game 7.
Will Mike Woodson Trust Chris Copeland and Pablo Prigioni?
When a team is struggling as mightily as the Knicks have been in this series, a coach tends to get a bit tinker-happy with his rotations. For a coach who has been around his team long enough and seen it do marvelous things, one can imagine how frustrating it's been to see shots that went in all season suddenly clanking off the side of the backboard.
So Mike Woodson has adjusted. And then he's adjusted again. And again. And so on and so forth, most of the time to little avail.
Kenyon Martin started alongside Tyson Chandler in Game 4 to counter Indiana's size before Woodson realized how terrible that lineup was offensively. Amar'e Stoudemire arrived as the potential savior only to be vanquished almost instantly. And they keep bringing out poor Jason Kidd to shovel some more dirt on his NBA grave.
All of these small rotational flaws have come at least at the partial expense of two players whose presences have set flame to the Knicks' stagnating offense all postseason—Chris Copeland and Pablo Prigioni.
Judging from the ovations Prigioni got almost every time he touched the ball in Game 5, it's safe to say the Knicks fans have caught on to the Argentine guard's effect. The Knicks offense has been oft-prone to collapsing in on itself when Prigioni hasn't been on the floor, thanks to an emphasis on isolation plays.
Though New York has done a fantastic job of late creating ball movement, the numbers bear out the Prigioni Effect. The Knicks have scored 16 points more per 100 possessions when Prigioni is on the floor compared to when he's on the bench, per NBA.com. The 35-year-old guard acts as a catalyst to the offense, always looking to get the ball in a better position to score.
And while the Prigioni isn't known for his defense, New York has been better with him on the floor in that area as well. Any minutes currently being given to Kidd should be siphoned off to Prigioni immediately—even if it involves playing the aging guard a few more minutes than he's used to.
The same very well could be said for Copeland, the 29-year-old rookie who has been yo-yoed in and out of Woodson’s rotation more than any other player this season. Though he’s only played in eight games and in limited minutes this postseason, the Knicks offense has thrived with Copeland on the floor. Small sample-size alert applies here, but the Knicks are plus-17.6 per 100 possessions with Copeland on the floor, per NBA.com.
Copeland's use going forward will be particularly interesting because of the array of options he gives the Knicks. He can play either forward position and shoot the rock from beyond the arc, giving Woodson the opportunity to have a size-shooting combination not found elsewhere on the roster.
Copeland and Prigioni haven’t shared the floor much in this series, but here’s a snapshot of what it could look like:
If Woodson is able to trust his two older-than-usual rookies, the Knicks offense might finally get into a rhythm.
We've gone through this whole mini-preview without mentioning the names Carmelo Anthony purposefully. Over the course of five games, we've seen how the Pacers are going to defend the Knicks star—almost no matter how New York plans on getting him the ball.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel is going to throw Paul George on Anthony in one-on-one situations and have his All-Star forward stick to his opponent hard even after screens. The only times Anthony sees anyone other than George is in transition, where David West often has to take over because ‘Melo guards him on the opposite end and when George is on the bench.
Through the sheer force of George’s defensive excellence and the Pacers’ help schemes, they have been able to force Anthony into impossible shots—even for the league’s best maker of impossible shots. Even in his "return to form" in Game 5, ‘Melo shot just 12-of-28 from the field.
Who are you picking?
And with J.R. Smith's struggles have been more pronounced than Anthony's, the answer of where the Knicks get offense remains in flux. If more minutes for Prigioni and Copeland is your team’s best option to save its season (and it is), there might be some deeper problems in need of addressing.
Those problems, of course, are that the Pacers defense is the best in the league. It’s been that way the entire season, and Indiana’s offense has only needed to be good enough throughout this series.
It wasn’t in Game 5, and it’s questionable to whether it will be without Hill on Saturday. But this club has had wild variance with its offensive productivity all season, and we’ve learned to never bet against the Pacers at this point.
This will be close, as Indiana will struggle with turnovers, but look for the Pacers to advance to face Miami in a rematch of last year’s tantalizing showdown.
Score Prediction: Pacers 88, Knicks 86