They're back, baby! The Indiana Pacers broke free of my jinx for the second straight round by beating the New York Knicks 106-99 tonight, finishing off the series in 6 games and heading into the Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. Yes, for the first time ever, I have correctly predicted two Pacers series in a row (I said Pacers over Hawks in 6 as well).
After a disgusting game 5 in which both teams played as ugly as flies circling a turd, game 6 turned out to be a ripper. The Pacers stuck to their guns and kept forcing the ball inside, trying to draw fouls and getting the Knicks front line in foul trouble, which they succeeded in doing (Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin both fouled out, as did Iman Shumpert).
The Knicks, on the other hand, went to Carmelo Anthony early and often, and he answered with 39 points on 15-29 shooting. New York also caught fire from downtown in the second half, hitting what felt like 20 three-pointers in a row to give the Knicks the lead after falling behind by double-digits early in the third quarter. The Knicks lived and died by the three all season, and for a while tonight it appeared as though those threes would help them live to see another game.
This was great playoff basketball. Physical, tense, and every possession counting. The Pacers looked like they were on their way to a grind-'em-out double-digit win until the Knicks went on that insane three-point barrage. Then it looked like the game was the Knicks to lose, but the young Pacers dug deep, and as coach Frank Vogel told them to do, embraced the challenge.
In the first 5 games of this series, the Pacers usually have one guy that steps up and carries the team in their victories (David West in game 1, Roy Hibbert in game 3, George Hill in game 4). Tonight, it was an all-round effort, but two guys in particular stood out.
First of all, Roy Hibbert, who had 21 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocks. He was a thorn in the Knicks' side and thoroughly outplayed Tyson Chandler all series. His offense was there tonight but it was his usual magnificent rim defense and hustle that won the game for the Pacers. Hibbert had the play of the game tonight when he stuffed Carmelo Anthony on a one-handed dunk -- that was 100% all ball -- with the Knicks up 92-90 and less than 5 minutes to go in the game. The momentum clearly shifted on that play and the Pacers were able to steady the ship and deliver the knockout blow.
Speaking of knockout blows, the man who delivered it tonight was Lance Stephenson. I thought he would prove that he was "Born Ready" in game 5 with George Hill out, but tonight was really his coming out party. Stephenson razzled and dazzled and powered his way to a team-high 25 points and 10 rebounds, with all of his 9 field goals coming near or right at the rim. Seeing him in the open court was spectacular, and the old Knick guards had no answer for his explosiveness and tenacity. Stephenson scored 9 of the Pacers' next 11 points after Hibbert's block on Anthony, giving the Pacers a 7 point lead they would refuse to relinquish.
The Knicks also had some pretty boneheaded plays down the stretch that contributed to their elimination. They were still in the game with a minute to go (down 4 points) but Shumpert allowed the Pacers to waste 10 seconds off the clock before committing a silly reach in foul against George Hill.
After Hill makes the free throws to give the Pacers a 6-point lead, Chris Copeland misses a three, but the Knicks would allow around 16 seconds to elapse on the clock before fouling Paul George. By that time there was only 9 seconds left on the game clock. Seriously -- you are down by 6 points with 25 seconds to go and the other team has the ball. How hard is it to realize that you must foul as soon as you can't get an immediate steal?
Paul George, who had 23 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists, missed both free throws (he was just 3-9 from the line tonight and must work on his free throws before facing Miami), but the Knicks allowed Sam Young to sneak in to grab the offensive rebound. Game over.
As I said, it was a team effort with a couple of standout performances. David "The Rock" West was solid with 17 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists, and carried the team early in the second half to open up that double-digit lead, and while George Hill struggled coming back from a concussion (he couldn't hit many open shots tonight, going 2-10 including 1-6 from three), he was a steadying influence on the ball (Pacers had only 9 turnovers, which is HUGE for them) and knocked down all 7 of his free throws, including a couple of big ones to effectively ice the game.
The Pacers bench was, as usual, not great -- Tyler Hansbrough was gross, but the four bench guys only played a combined 37 minutes, so they didn't really get much of a chance to stuff things up too much.
Anyway, the Pacers are finally back in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 9 years, and they will be heavy underdogs against the defending champions Miami Heat. If you had asked me before the Knicks series I would have said the Heat in 5...6 at the very most, but this Pacers team has shown a special resiliency and fearlessness that I think could go a long way.
I'll hold off my prediction for now, but if Dwyane Wade continues to be a shadow of his former self with knee problems, Roy Hibbert dominates the small Miami front court and Paul George plays great defense on Lebron...then who knows?