The Knicks are healthy (almost), the playoffs are guaranteed (almost), and the opponent can’t catch us (almost). Tonight the Knicks start a home-and-home with the Indiana Pacers, and two wins would put the Knicks out of their reach. Two losses would leave them six games back of New York with one head-to-head remaining, and as the Sixers have shown that deficit can close awfully fast, even so late in the season.
After a fast start under interim coach Frank Vogel, whose head is too small for the rest of his body, Indy has been passed by Charlotte for the eighth seed in the East. Have they quit, or will they be even more motivated? Here’s their cast of characters:
PG – Darren Collison: Do you think he and Toney Douglas have a lot to talk about? Or is it like when you see someone who looks just like you and you immediately want to get out of there?
SG – Danny Granger: Of the league’s “stars” – being a little generous there – Granger seems to be the one least apt to go off looking for his own shot. Amid an abysmal March, though, he looks like he’s forcing things a little, most notably in a 2-19 showing in Minnesota.
SF – Paul George: Looking like a player in the league, but isn’t his skill set a little too similar to Granger’s?
PF – Tyler Hansbrough: Averaging 22 PPG and 59% FG over his last three games.
C – Roy Hibbert: His up-and-down year appears to back on the way down. Just in time!
Pacers Rotation: Jeff Foster did an outstanding job on Amar’e Stoudemire the first time these teams met, and averages a crazy three offensive rebounds per game in just 17 minutes. T.J. Ford has been so ignored that Indiana didn’t even bother to buy him out; the smarter, slower, larger A.J. Price took his minutes behind Collison. I would expect more Brandon Rush than Dahntay Jones as Indiana tries to keep up with the Knicks offensively. Josh McRoberts fills in for Hansbrough on white four duty.
Since Frank Vogel Took Over: The Pacers have: won seven of eight games; enjoyed growing fan and media sentiment that they’d waltz into the playoffs, and that the NBA is so much better off when such a basketball hotbed has a good team; lost some tough games to Miami; realized, “Hey, maybe beating the Raptors and Bobcats says more about them than us;” lost eight of their last nine, and when the schedule began to let up they threw in a blowout loss in Minnesota in which Kevin Love had 21 rebounds.
Any of that sound familiar?
Last Time against Indiana: The Knicks played a lethargic matinee and eked out a 98-92 win after Amar’e woke up with a few late baskets. It was one of those “How is this game still close?” games. And just from looking at the box score, it appears to have been one of those “Why did Danilo Gallinari only take eight shots?” kind of games as well. Remember those?
What I Hope Is Our Final Chauncey Billups Update: If you missed the news, Chauncey is back and raring to go. What’s more, it seems Anthony Carter missed yesterday’s practice with a touch of illness. Please don’t tell anyone I poisoned his apple sauce.
Numbers!: Surprinsgly (to me), Indiana is fourth in the league in pace – I suppose they have Collison and, before January, T.J. Ford to thank for that. They’re a less surprinsing 24th in offensive efficiency. They also have a propensity for turning the ball over, at nearly 25% of possessions.
I’m most interested to see the balance of minutes between Shawne Williams and Jared Jeffries. You would think this would be a time to run Shawne out there and hope his hot shooting keeps up, but Hansbrough’s recent surge may require the missed layups and defensive stylings of J-Double.
Another player I’m eager to see is Ronny Turiaf. Turiaf is the only player with the size and muscle to even think about checking Hibbert in the post, but as I mentioned in a recent recap, his minutes seem to be predicated more on when he’s able to play rather than when he’s needed.
Finally, a big key tonight will be (duh) communication on defense. I mention this in particular because the Pacers are very clever about using double screens, off-ball screens and back cuts to create mismatches and baskets. With George, Granger and Hansbrough in the lineup, the Knicks can probably get by on switching these screens as they usually do, but Indiana is smarter than your average bear and it’s going to take consistent communication to switch all these screens without anyone getting bottled up. Usually when the Knicks are allowing easy baskets early, we take it as a sign that they don’t have their energy. Tonight, we may have to give them a slight pass in the early going if they have trouble communicating.
Still, I’d be disappointed if the Knicks didn’t throw some dirt on the Pacers in these next two games. Enjoy the game, and I’ll have the recap for you tonight.