There couldn't have been a better way for the Indiana Pacers to return to the Eastern Conference Finals. They dispatched of the New York Knicks, were led by their stars, and flat out won when the game was on the line. They actually led most of the way tonight, but when the Knicks were in desperation mode, the Pacers made sure a wild New York shooting effort in the third quarter wasn't going to force a Game 7.
Indiana held a 10-point lead in the third quarter despite a Carmelo Anthony explosion in the third quarter, but Iman Shumpert hit three consecutive three pointers as the Knicks scorched off towards a 12-2 run to tie the game up. Indiana weathered the storm to tie the game heading into the fourth, but the Knicks continued to drain threes, hitting eight of their first nine in the second half.
J.R. Smith put the Knicks up two with under six minutes to go, and that's when the Pacers turned it up and proved they were the better team. The next three possessions featured Roy Hibbert stuffing and shutting down Carmelo Anthony, followed by two Anthony turnovers, the second stolen by Lance Stephenson as he was off to the races, scoring nine of Indiana's next 11 points, closing out the Knicks in Winning Time.
George Hill returned to the lineup, being cleared from his concussion, and while he didn't have the offensive impact, shooting just 2-10, his presence helped open up the game for Stephenson, who was the catalyst for Indiana's success tonight. Not only was he huge in the fourth quarter, scoring and hustling his way towards the finish line, but he began the night hot, scoring 16 points in the first half.
Stephenson finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds, not only 9-13 from the field, but a shocking 7-8 from the free throw line. Entering the game, Stephenson was shooting 46% from the line, quite possibly not having hit a pair of free throws at any point in the postseason. He was locked in tonight and made sure his team wasn't going to lose. Can that be something Stephenson does more often? Suffice to say, in the next series, having a guy who not only wants to close it out, but can? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves too much...
Roy Hibbert was a second fiddle to Stephenson's show for much of the night, but quietly put together a solid game before breaking into the front page of the game's highlights with a monster stuff on Anthony's dunk. It was just one of five blocks Hibbert had, but swing the game completely in Indiana's favor. It was the spark for an 11-2 Indiana run, effectively the end of Anthony's night (he had just four points in the fourth quarter), and opened up the end of the game for Stephenson to run away with it.
To add, Hibbert had 21 points and 12 rebounds, wrapping up another dominating effort against the NBA's All-Defense First Team member Tyson Chandler. David West continues to struggle getting that automatic basket to go, but a huge offensive rebound put back during the 11-2 run was part of his 17 points. Paul George had a superb game, finally finding some touch shooting the ball, going 9-15 for 23 points and helping to shut down Anthony in the fourth quarter. George did struggle mightily from the line, finishing 3-9, and missing all four of his fourth quarter attempts.
With Stephenson leading the way for Indiana with 25, he became the final starter to lead Indiana in scoring this series, really showcasing the team's balance, even as all five starters took the podium for the post game interview. While Indiana won the series with their defensive effort, holding the Knicks well below their offensive averages, especially from three point range (minus the final half of tonight's game), their ability to get offense when it mattered was the key in getting the four wins.
As well, the Pacers took it to the Knicks on the glass again, holding them without a rebound for the first five minutes. The Knicks began to come back when they adjusted and drew even in the rebounding battle, but it's no accident the Pacers pulled away late when they reestablished their rebounding edge. The Pacers also got extra effort thanks to their ability to get to the free throw line. It's easy to look at the lopsided free throw advantage (46-18 and 34-16 foul difference) and cry foul (cough), but there was little to suggest the whistles weren't fair on both sides.
The Pacers lived in the paint, scoring 52 in the paint, while the Knicks scored just 20 points, getting closer to their average of three pointers, shooting 30. Indiana also won the fast break battle 12-0, led by Stephenson and halted by the Indiana defense. Indiana not only hit free throws tonight (shooting a decent 74% despite George's misses), but held the ball for only nine turnovers in tonight's game, far and away their best effort controlling the ball. That's what got them the loss in Game 5, and they proved tonight that they were the better team if they could just overcome it.
It wasn't so easy to simply clean up the mistakes and shut down the Knicks when they finally found their three point touch in the third quarter. The Knicks exploded for 34 points in the third quarter, hitting six of seven three pointers. The Knicks got 15 in the quarter from Anthony and 16 from Shumpert. It wasn't until Shumpert got it going that the Knicks got some support for Anthony, and New York really showed why they were such a threat all season when they can get instant offense from multiple guys, even if J.R. Smith never did show up this series.
Now it's time to move forward to the Eastern Conference Finals. In the past 20 years, no Eastern Conference team has as many Conference Finals appearance as the Pacers, Indiana clinching their seventh and first in nine years. This is where they had to get for this season to be a success. Despite losing Danny Granger before the season began and having a struggling bench all season (though much credit goes to Sam Young for his effort tonight in the first half to completely redeem himself from a horrid start to the series, does this paint a redemption picture for...Gerald Green??), the Pacers still wanted to get here.
They don't want it to end here, but they want to play the team they'll be matched up against beginning Wednesday night: the Miami Heat. If Indiana didn't face Miami at some point in this postseason, there's no way they could've truly called this season a successful one. The Pacers made moves in the offseason to counter Miami, and they'll get to see exactly how much it worked over the next two weeks.
In the meantime, let it settle in: The Indiana Pacers are back where they belong, as one of the NBA's four best teams.