The Indiana Pacers finally figured it out.
When given the chance to take command of a playoff series, they can’t give it back. On Tuesday night, they didn’t.
George Hill scored 26 points and Paul George had 18 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, leading the Pacers past the New York Knicks 93-82 and to within one win of their first conference finals appearance since 2004.
“We wanted it,” George said. “For us to come out with that edge, still, after being up 2-1 and being on our floor for Game 4, for us to be up and ready and have an edge to play, it just speaks to how focused we are right now.”
It was a far cry from what Indiana experienced a week ago in New York. Or last year at home against Miami.
Last week, the Knicks rallied from a Game 1 loss, using a 30-2 run to blow out Indiana at Madison Square Garden and even the series.
A year ago, the Pacers held a 2-1 lead over Miami but gave away Game 4 and never won again. Miami went on to win the NBA crown.
So the Pacers went into Tuesday night determined not to let it happen again, certainly not with former stars Reggie Miller and Rik Smits in the house watching their old team hand it to their old rivals.
“I just think that our focus has been better than it was,” Indiana’s David West said. “We might have surprised ourselves going in there and getting Game 1. Naturally, we may have had a little letdown, but we talked about maintaining our home court and our focus in these two games and we were able to accomplish that. Our next goal is to compete hard with an opportunity for a close-out game in a tough environment.”
The Pacers were strong defensively again, had another big rebounding advantage (54-36) and never really let the Knicks challenge them in the second half. They can wrap up the series Thursday night in New York.
Desperate New York tried everything to change the script. Nothing worked.
Kenyon Martin played 29 minutes, and J.R. Smith logged 31½ despite missing practice Sunday and Monday because they were ill. Guard Iman Shumpert started even with a sore and swollen left knee that had the Knicks so worried they brought an orthopedic doctor to Indy to examine it Tuesday. The doctor determined there was no structural damage.
Amare Stoudemire was called for four fouls in 11-plus minutes in his second game back since March 7 and had only four points and four rebounds.
NBA scoring champion Carmelo Anthony finished with 24 points before fouling out with 2 minutes left in the game. He took only four shots in the fourth quarter and was held without a basket over the final 12 minutes for the second straight game.
Smith, the NBA’s top sixth man, scored 19 points, most coming in a futile attempt to rally his team late.
And on a night New York shot just 35.6 percent from the field and 28.6 percent on 3-pointers, the ugliest part may have been how the Knicks lost their composure, giving away points on technical foul calls, arguing with the refs, even smacking the press table in frustration.
“I can’t lose hope,” coach Mike Woodson said. “It takes four games to get out of this series. We go home, we handle our business and we get back here on Friday and see if we can force Game 7.”
Game 6 would be Saturday, but given the Knicks’ track record at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, it might not matter.
New York dropped to 0-4 at Indiana this season. The Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies are the only playoff teams that are unbeaten at home. Indiana has won all five home games by double digits and has won five of its last six overall.
New York is convinced it can get things turned around quickly after losing five of its last seven, mostly because of horrendous shooting.
“It’s do or die, we got to win the next game,” Anthony said. “But there’s no need for anyone to hang their heads at this point. We’ve still got a game to play, we’ve still got to play basketball, and we’ve got to do it being very confident and knowing and believing that we can do it.”
How bad was this one?
New York tied the score at 14-14, then allowed the Pacers to go on a 9-2 run to make it 23-16 after one quarter. The Knicks never got closer than five the rest of the way and never led Tuesday night.
Instead, Indiana methodically extended the lead by fighting off New York rallies.
After the Knicks got within 35-30 in the second quarter, Indiana pulled away to make it 48-34 at halftime. When New York closed to 54-43 in the third, Indiana scored seven straight. And when the Knicks finally cut the deficit to 69-61 in the fourth, Indiana went on another 7-0 run to retake control.
But if the Pacers have learned anything over the past year, it’s this: The series is not over.
“I think we have to go into New York like we’re in an elimination game, like we’re about to get eliminated and play like we’re down 1-3,” Hill said. “I think if we do that and play with the same type of energy and passion that we played with tonight, we can come away with a win. But it’s not going to be easy.”
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