By John Schmeelk
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If the Knicks learned anything on Sunday, it was this: They aren’t playing the Boston Celtics anymore. The game that the Knicks played on Sunday would have been good enough to beat the Celtics, but it is not good enough to beat the Indiana Pacers. Knicks fans had every right to celebrate getting out of the first round for the first time in 13 years, but there was absolutely no justification for celebrating how the Knicks played vs. Boston (not well). The Knicks beat Boston because of talent level alone. They were the No. 2 seed and Boston was the No. 7 seed for good reason. Even with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics were not a very good basketball team. The Knicks’ first-round series win had a lot more to do with Boston’s ineptitude than the Knicks stellar play.
The Pacers are not such easy marks. They won 50 games, too. Much like Boston, they guard teams extremely well and do particularly well against isolation plays. That’s where the comparison ends, however. Unlike Boston, Indiana is one of the best rebounding teams in basketball. They actually have a point guard in George Hill that can orchestrate an offense. David West and Roy Hibbert are two post threats that can score one-on-one. Paul George and Lance Stephenson are the type of wing athletes that the Celtics dream of. They are almost as well-coached as Boston with Frank Vogel, and are just as tough and punishing with their physical play. The Pacers are a much better team, and if the Knicks want to advance, they need to play better.
Despite beating Boston in six games, the Knicks never played their best game in that series. In fact, since the playoff started, the Knicks haven’t played good basketball at all. After being the third-best offensive team in the league this season (108.6 Off Rating — points per 100 possessions), their 97.3 rating in the playoffs would put them as the worst offensive team in the NBA if this was the regular season. DEAD LAST.
Until Sunday, the Knicks hadn’t scored more than 90 points in a playoff game. It’s fair to credit the Celtics’ defense, but the Knicks’ offense was much worse than what the Celtics held opponents to during the regular season (100.4 Defensive rating). The Knicks’ 95 points on Sunday was their best showing in the playoffs thus far, but their offensive rating for that one game would still put the Knicks’ offense below the Bulls thus far in the playoffs, who have basically lost their entire team to injury.
It’s really, really bad.
The anemic offense was hidden behind what appeared to be a vastly-improved defense, but now this question needs to be asked: Was the Knicks’ defense really any better, or was it the Celtics’ offense that was just so inept? The Pacers, a team that was right next to the Celtics in the bottom half of the league in offensive output all season, scored at will on the Knicks. The Knicks could not get a stop when they needed it. Odds are that the Pacers won’t repeat their 49 percent shooting percentage again this series, but when the Knicks spoke about effort after the game, this is what they were talking about.
The Knicks’ defensive intensity wasn’t there, nor was their rebounding. Indiana outrebounded the Knicks by 14, and had twice as many second-chance points (20 vs. 10). You can chalk this up to a letdown after the Boston series — Why didn’t Indiana have a similar let down? — and bet on the fact that the Knicks can get this right by the time the series is over. But it’s no sure thing. And if they don’t, then this series will be over quickly.
Effort, however, is not the biggest problem with the Knicks. It’s execution.
Mike Woodson got left off the hook for one of the worst coaching performances I have ever seen in the fourth quarter against the Celtics in Game 6, but I can’t put Game 1 of the Indiana series on him. The Knicks’ offense looked much better to me, and they ran far less isolation than they did against Boston. His players just didn’t get the job done. Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith got to the rim at will, but they couldn’t finish or draw a foul on Hibbert. Basketball can be a much more complicated sport than people think sometimes, but it can also be very simple. If the Knicks want a chance to beat the Pacers, Anthony and Smith have to shoot better and be more efficient. If they don’t, the Knicks aren’t winning anything.
You can already sense the tide turning among Knicks fans regarding the team’s top two scorers. The fans, especially the casual one who only tune in for playoff games, are turning on them. They see clanked shots and excessive complaining to officials, and they are getting sick of it. Ask Patrick Ewing what it is like to play in New York once the fan base starts to turn on you. It is nearly impossible. At the end, the Garden crowd started booing when Ewing got the ball in post-iso situations. Melo has done far less for this city than Ewing ever did.
It could get ugly, and fast.
In my opinion, the Knicks are still the more talented team in this series, but the margin has narrowed considerably. If they want to advance past Indiana, talent alone will not carry them. They need to play harder, but even more importantly, they need to play better. The ball needs to move better. The stars need to shoot better. The Knicks don’t win this series if Raymond Felton is their best player on the floor. It’s that simple.
This ain’t the Celtics anymore. These are the Pacers.
This is for real.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.
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