Knicks-Pacers Series Breakdown Preview

 I’ve got the Knicks winning in 7. I don’t feel good about it though.

 Melo

New York almost blew a 26 point fourth quarter lead Friday night in game 6 and in the process I almost wet my pants. Nonetheless it’s onto the second round, where the second seeded Knicks will face off with the third seeded Indiana Pacers. Like Boston, Indiana is a great defensive team. The Pacers finished the regular season as the league’s best defense, allowing just 96.6 points per 100 possessions.  Though they got by the Celtics in round 1, the Knicks offense really struggled, scoring just 96.9 points per 100 possessions.

This series is going to be an absolute bloodbath. Like the Celtics series, we’re again going to see a contrast of regular season styles. Indiana boasts a great defense and a mediocre offense, while the Knicks boast a great offense and subpar defense. These are two evenly matched teams and there are some really interesting story lines and match-ups to look at. I’m going to break it all down.

The first thing I’m looking at is what kind of lineups the Knicks are going to play. Mike Woodson indicated Saturday that he was going to stick with the Knicks small-ball lineup featuring Carmelo Anthony at power forward. This is absolutely the right move. Indiana is going to match-up their great perimeter defender Paul George onto Anthony, but that will create a matchup advantage for the Knicks elsewhere. The Pacers don’t play small ball like the Knicks do, rather they start two bigs in center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West. Because of this, David West is likely going to be defending Iman Shumpert which is obviously a huge advantage for the Knicks. While Shumpert isn’t a great off the dribble offensive player yet, he’ll have more space to operate both on and off the ball with West defending him. We’ve seen the effectiveness that Shumpert can have offensively when faced with a matchup advantage in a regular season game earlier this season with the Memphis Grizzlies. Ex-Knick Zach Randolph was cross matched onto Shumpert and the Knick sophomore guard played one of his best offensive games of the season.

Just because they’re not going to start games with a big lineup doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t see the Knicks go to some bigger lineups with Anthony, Martin, and Chandler on the floor together. I think situationally this makes sense, but it shouldn’t be their primary modus operandi. That trio saw exactly 0:00 minutes of floor time together during the regular season and, as we saw from the Clippers in round 1, experimenting with lineups in the postseason is not ideal. In theory that lineup is also a train-wreck offensively because the spacing will be terrible and neither Martin or Chandler can get good looks unless they’re set up in the pick and roll. Felton would have to be the point guard with probably JR as the two. Because of bad spacing, the Knicks would probably run a bunch of iso ball and they’d no longer have a cross match advantage against Indiana’s two bigs. If Martin was able to either space the floor or at least provide a threat as a post up player, maybe I’d have different thoughts about this lineup. He can’t and I’m not wild about it.

The Knicks have to get back to running their offense. In round one, the spread pick and roll that worked so well during the regular season became more a rarity than the norm. The norm became Carmelo Anthony wing isolations, even when Anthony was not playing well. Anthony’s USG rate was a ridiculous 38.5% in the postseason, a 3% increase from his league leading regular season mark of 35.6%. While on the surface it doesn’t look like he was being used that much more than usual, it’s the types of looks he was getting which was the problem. In the regular season, Anthony got many of his looks in the low post and in spot up situations. Against Boston, very few of his looks were of the spot up variety. He was isolated early and often in each game, a detriment to coach Woodson’s play calling. As the numbers bear out, 48.2% true shooting 40.9% eFG , Anthony didn’t shoot well in the series. In addition to his bad shooting, he wasn’t looking to pass like he did during the regular season. Granted, the Celtics did a good job of not bringing help and letting him go one-on-one, but he had opportunities to set up teammates and he opted to put up bad shots.  He’ll need to play better for the Knicks to beat Indiana, but he wasn’t getting any help from his coach.

The more infuriating part about the Knicks lack of offense was Raymond Felton’s success. Felton was eviscerating Boston in the pick and roll as a scorer seemingly every time the Knicks ran pick and roll sets. The problem was they didn’t do enough of it. During the regular season, the Knicks offense was at its best with either Felton or Prigioni running the pick and roll. This sets up the Knicks spot up shooters and puts pressure on the defense to make the right help reads and rotations. This is something they need to get back to.

Indiana has two great defensive centers in Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi. They like to defend pick and rolls by cutting off penetration to the hoop. They’ll happily give up open pick and pop mid-range looks to opponents. By design, they allowed a league high 2288 mid-range jumpers during the regular season.

It’s not impossible for the Knicks to run pick and roll with Felton and Chandler, they actually had some success with it during the regular season, but I have another idea here. Why not involve Carmelo Anthony in more pick and roll as the ball handler?

In limited sample size, 42 possessions used, Anthony recorded a whopping 1.4 points per possession as the roll man. In the fourth quarter of game 6, Anthony’s decisive three came off a pick and pop. In one of Chris Herring’s pieces last week, he referenced Anthony’s success through the first five games of the Boston series when he was making quicker decisions with that ball:

Still, Anthony has shot well during the series when he’s been decisive. A stopwatch-timed review of each Anthony attempt reveals he’s shot 57.1% (24-of-42) when firing less than two seconds after getting the ball. By contrast, he’s shot just 21.9% (9-for-41) after holding it for more than four seconds.

One way to get Anthony going would be for him to get easier looks and involving him in pick and pop action would certainly do that.

I mentioned earlier that Indiana by design lets roll men have open mid-range shots. It makes sense given how analytic data suggests long 2′s are the worst shot in basketball. Carmelo is going to take mid-range shots anyways; I’d rather they come off pick and pop action where he’ll make quicker decision and get more space to operate rather than in isolation.

Defensively, I feel good about this series. Indiana’s offense consists of post ups. Lots and lots and lots of post ups. 18% of Indiana’s offensive possessions were post up situations, primarily involving Roy Hibbert and David West. They rated out 5th in basketball scoring 0.88 PPP on these possessions. The Knicks in theory match up well against this kind of offense. They rated out as the best team in basketball defending post ups, allowing just 0.76 points PPP. Tyson Chandler is one of the best post up defenders in basketball and I feel good about him stopping Roy Hibbert. The Knicks power forwards are both good post up defenders as well. Anthony’s defensive deficiencies should be obvious to all and I’ve talked about them ad nauseum, but he’s a damn good post defender. He allowed just 0.61 PPP in 146 possessions during the regular season. Martin didn’t grade out as well, but the sample size was super small (40 possessions). David West is an animal, but I don’t think he’ll kill the Knicks in post ups.

Much has been made about Woodson’s infuriating defensive schemes and trust me, they’ve been infuriating. They switch everything which gets them in bad defensive match ups, such as big men posted up on guards. That certainly could be a problem in this series, especially with David West, but I think the Knicks switching could help them. Indiana loves to run hand offs and screens, primarily with Paul George.

Because they don’t have great perimeter scorers, they like to get George on the move off the ball to free up cutting lanes and open threes. In the Boston series, New York’s switching gave Paul Pierce some issues because he wasn’t able to get good operating space coming off screens. I could see George having similar issues.

I think transition defense is going to be important for the Knicks. Indiana aren’t exactly the Heat when they get out in transition, but they checked in at a respectable 1.13 PPP in transition this season. Lance Stephenson and Paul George are both capable of running the floor and getting to the rim. I bring up transition defense because the Knicks need to keep Indiana in the half court as much as possible. Transition defense isn’t just fast breaks. If Indiana pushes the tempo, they cannot be allowed to get good looks early in the shot clock. Given the Knicks offense being incredibly shaky and the Pacers being a woefully average offensive team, breakdowns like this cannot happen:

The elephant in the room is Amar’e Stoudemire. Woodson said today that Stoudemire might return for game 3 and I imagine most Knick fans jarred their heads against a wall. I’ve been adamant that I think they are better without Stoudemire and I still believe that. Having said that, if the Knicks are going to go away from their offense like they did in the first round, he might be more helpful than I anticipated. The problem with Stoudemire is he’s so bad defensively that he must play alongside another big (Kenyon or Tyson) to cover his ass and he’s hard to play with Anthony. The offense was fine when those two shared the court this season, but the Knicks just couldn’t defend anybody. Here’s how I would use Stoudemire.

He would play about 12-15 minutes a game, each minute being while Anthony is sitting on the bench. The Knicks just cannot survive defensively with them on the court together. I’d play him along with Tyson, Kenyon, or even Camby for a few minutes, because the Knicks can’t afford to give up easy baskets to a team with as good a defense as Indiana. Offensively, we know how he was great in his new found post up game. The Knick bench was woefully unproductive against Boston and they actually could use a big man who can score. However he can’t finish the game and he can’t play with Anthony.

Against Miami, he serves little to no use, but we’ll cross that bridge if/when we get to it. Against Indiana, there is a role for him coming off the bench. Bigger lineups with him in them will be more effective than say a Martin-Chandler big lineup because Stoudemire still has the ability to carry an offense for a few minutes a game. He shouldn’t finish the game, nor probably see any fourth quarter minutes. If Woodson uses Stoudemire in this more limited role, I think he’ll be helpful. If he tries to get 20 minutes, including 4th quarter minutes, out of him, then we have a problem.

Overall, this series is going to be a bloodbath. These are two tough, evenly matched teams who don’t like each other very much. I’d be shocked if this doesn’t go seven games. I don’t trust the Knick offense right now, nor do I trust Woodson to make the right offensive adjustments. I think we’ll see the games play out like we did in the Boston series. The games will be grind it out affairs where the Knicks will have to get big buckets from Carmelo Anthony down the stretch to win. We don’t know if JR will snap out of his funk or how Amar’e will come back and affect the team. It’s going to be a physical series. Can Anthony and Chandler stay healthy? And can they perform if injured? This is a series with a ton of interesting story lines and match ups and it should be a bloodbath. The Knicks have home court, which is probably the deciding factor in me picking them to win the series in 7 games. However, I feel much worse about that pick than I did about picking the Knicks to win in 6.

Follow Taylor on Twitter @tarmosino