It's been no real secret that the Indiana Pacers have thrived on their schedule for over a month, stumbling their way to an 11-8 record since their last win against an above .500 team on February 7th against the Portland Trail Blazers. It's been enough to stay on top of the Eastern Conference thanks to Miami's own struggles, but Indiana has suffered a major flaw in the past six weeks: their inability to beat a team with any sort of a pulse.
The New York Knicks, despite being 28-40 and four games out of the 8th spot in the East after tonight's game, fit the very bill of a team with a pulse, having run off six straight wins before a home game against the Pacers. While Indiana has struggled beating good teams, so too have the Knicks, who hadn't topped a playoff team since January 24th prior to tonight's 92-86 win over the Pacers.
Indiana was their typical clumsy, ineffective selves in the first half, turning the ball over, failing to corral the rebound, and getting stuck offensively on every possession. The Pacers managed to stay in the game despite only scoring 14 first quarter points and failing to hit a field goal in the final 3:52 of the quarter thanks to New York's equal ineptitude from the floor. But extra possessions gifted to New York in the form of turnovers, rebounds, and fouls helped them overcome their own shooting woes.
The Pacers cut the lead to two points early in the second quarter at 23-21, but watched the Knicks run off a 16-2 run in the game's next four minutes to jump ahead 39-23. Poor offensive execution was the root of Indiana's struggles, with the Pacers coming up with just two first half assists as they fought back to within 12 at the end of the half, trailing 47-35, getting to 35 on Paul George's only points of the first half with 21 seconds remaining.
Despite getting thoroughly outplayed, the Pacers were only down 12, and managed to fight their way back into the game after falling behind by 16 early in the third. Indiana had a 9-0 run to trim the game to five, but a foul on a Carmelo Anthony three pointer set up New York to go back up 10. Roy Hibbert stepped up big in the third quarter despite getting limited in the first half with foul trouble.
Hibbert scored 10 of his 14 third quarter points to follow as he carried the Pacers back to within four points. Anthony's onslaught on the other end kept the Knicks at arm's length, but with the Pacers fighting back and trailing 62-58, Indiana was killed by timely points from Pablo Prigioni, who hit a three to push New York's lead to seven and once again at the end of the third, with a buzzer beating layup coming off of Lance Stephenson's miss on the other end that put New York up 67-62 into the fourth quarter.
Luis Scola and Paul George cut New York's lead to one to open the fourth, but before Indiana could jump into the lead, the Knicks ran off an 8-0 run to go up 75-66. With the Pacers needing some stability on offense during the Knicks run, they settled on three point shots, lining up three straight misses as New York got timely looks to push the game in their advantage.
Indiana made another push to pull within four at 80-76, but Anthony's consistency was too much for the Pacers to contend with on a night when they not only had no consistency from George, Stephenson, and David West, but looked away from Hibbert, who had just two points in the quarter, with his basket cutting New York's lead to four. Anthony scored New York's next six as the Knicks closed out strong, holding on late for the 92-86 win.
Paul George's night was a frustrating mess. His shot selection was poor and the few looks he did get simply weren't going. George finished 4-17 from the field, climbing up to 17 points thanks to some late free throw trips, but he was never a real part of the team's success, with foul trouble sending him to the bench for much of the third quarter. A team is rarely ever better without their best player, but George certainly had himself a night to forget, something that's been frustrating in recent outings.
Roy Hibbert's success on the other hand was great to see. Not only did Hibbert carry the Pacers offensively in the third quarter part of his 20 point night, but he came back despite first half foul trouble that limited him to four points and less than ten minutes of action. Hibbert had his soft hook going, and everything he put towards the basket found its way in. It wasn't necessarily that Hibbert played better than usual, but he's a much different player when he can find the bottom of the basket with some kind of consistency.
He got plenty of help in the third from Lance Stephenson, who had a team high 21 points and nine rebounds. Stephenson had an impressive third quarter, slicing through the New York defense with ease, and setting Indiana up in favorable positions. Unfortunately, his biggest mistake of the night was one of the costliest. With George Hill in solid position for a corner three that could've cut the game to three, Stephenson zipped a no look pass past Hill for a turnover that resulted in a Raymond Felton dagger.
It was one of just two turnovers by the Pacers in the second half, who played a much better half of basketball following their pitiful first half showing. The Pacers fixed almost all of their issues from the first half, but the 12 point hole proved just too big to climb out of when it came to their inability to get the necessary stops. As well, Indiana just couldn't get the big shots to go in. The looks were there the entire second half, they just had a difficult time connecting.
Indiana actually shot better tonight at 42.5%, holding the Knicks at 39% even though the game felt differently. They also held New York to 92 points, but their early failures gave New York an extra nine attempts from the floor and they hit their free throws at a much better rate than Indiana, finishing +5 at the line. In a game with a razor thin margin for error, Indiana simply made too many costly mistakes.
It's to this point beating a dead horse, but if Indiana can simply bridge the success they found in the second half into the first half, cutting out these crippling slow starts, things can certainly turn into Indiana's favor when it comes to their much improved opposition over the next two weeks. But this has happened time and time again as Indiana tries to turn it on just to find out the other team came to play as well.
That won't change with Indiana's next game coming at home against the Chicago Bulls. Indiana's offensive struggles will be on full alert against the defensive-minded Bulls, who have been improved recently thanks to the play of Joakim Noah. The Miami Heat gifted Indiana another loss of their own, but if Indiana hopes to maintain the top spot, they have to believe they need to wake up instead of relying so heavily on Miami's struggles to coast them into the postseason.