INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Pacers are almost to the starting line.
Does that seem like a strange statement to make about a team that has played nearly seven months, a full regular season, with one playoff series win and another nearly in the bag? It may be strange, but it's true.
The Pacers' 93-82 win over the New York Knicks on Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse put them up 3-to-1 in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The Pacers can close the series out Thursday night in New York's Madison Square Garden.
Then they'll see the starting line.
I say that because everything this season has been a prelude to a rematch against the defending NBA champion Miami Heat. That's where the Pacers' season ended last year, without an answer for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. That's where it really needs to pick up again.
Presuming the Pacers continue to show they can beat Carmelo Anthony in a game of five-against-one, and presuming the Heat finish off the game but faltering Chicago Bulls, the rematch will take place.
Will these Pacers be ready for that huge step into the Eastern Conference championship? Judging by their methodical, defensive, team-oriented demolition of the Knicks on Tuesday, the answer is yes.
The Pacers are playing with equal parts energy and purpose now. They're going against the grain of the NBA logic, which says you must have a major superstar to be a contender, instead relying on the harder-to-market concept of defense and desire.
“Our effort was just off the charts,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “I couldn't be more proud of our defensive effort, our rebounding effort and our willingness to share the ball offensively. We talk about a hot-potato offense. These guys took it literally, getting the ball hopping, moving, spacing appropriately and getting good looks.”
The Knicks remain largely a one-man team, with Anthony (24 points on 9-of-23 shooting) trying to carry everyone on his back.
The Pacers counter with an approach that is much tougher to defend. The hot potato gets passed around, resulting in a balance that's tough to defend. George Hill scored 26 – on only 14 shots – to lead the Pacers on Tuesday. Paul George flirted with a triple-double (18 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists). Lance Stephenson hit a trio of three-pointers, finishing with 13 points. D.J. Augustin came off the bench for 11 points.
Hill keyed the Pacers' defense, too, which steered the team to its fifth home playoff win in double figures in five home playoff games this postseason.
“He was spectacular,” Vogel said. “That may be the best game I ever saw him play. He was great defensively, getting every loose ball, keep his guy in front of him, challenging – making all the winning plays.”
George, meanwhile, was tabbed with the primary responsibility of guarding Anthony, who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. George pestered Anthony into 14 misses. Whether George can deliver similar performances against the Heat, and probably James, will be one of the questions as the Pacers reach that starting line.
“How we're keeping (Anthony) to 24 points, I'm not really sure how we're doing it,” Vogel said, “other than just trying our best. Guys are giving great effort, and Roy (Hibbert) is great protection at the rim.”
The Pacers controlled the Knicks on a night when Hibbert (six points, 11 rebounds) and West (10 points, 10 rebounds) were relatively quiet offensively but solid in rebounding.
“That's what this team is all about – we're a deep team, a great team,” Hill said.
The depth and the general makeup of the Pacers' primary rotation has changed since their playoff run of a year ago. George has emerged as the top scorer with Danny Granger sidelined with injury. Stephenson went from a player on the bench getting under the skin of Miami's Juwan Howard to an offensive and defensive contributor.
The Pacers have matured over the last year. They're seasoned. George is 23, Stephenson 22. They are the youthful faces of the new Pacers, perhaps setting themselves up to establish a run like that of Reggie Miller, who received a rousing ovation Tuesday from his spot on press row with the broadcast team.
“From our starters to our bench, everybody's engaged and ready at any moment,” Stephenson said.
This series isn't over. As Knicks coach Mike Woodson said, it takes four wins to move on. But it sure felt over Tuesday night, as inevitable as the 27-year-old Hill maneuvering around the 40-year-old Jason Kidd.
“I saw a lot of growth, just great determination from our guys, that's the only way to put it,” Vogel said. “In terms of answering a win with another win, it takes a more determined effort. That's what you need to get on an extended playoff run.”
The Pacers need one win in the next three games to close out this series. Then they'll reach the starting line and see if they can handle the Heat.