There’s no player that deserves more praise than Lance Stephenson, leading the balanced Indiana Pacers with his best scoring performance of the postseason. George Hill gave them the push by simply recovering in time; Paul George was excellent on offense and a lot more accurate than usual; but it was Stephenson, and Roy Hibbert, with one huge block on Carmelo Anthony, that did the important work as the franchise reaches the conference finals for the first time in nine years.
The Knicks were leading 92-90 with just over five minutes left in the game. Carmelo Anthony, finishing with 39 points, was impossible to stop on the post, and spun his way into the paint. Only Roy Hibbert was there, as he’s been for most of the series and game 6, finishing with 5 blocks, none more important than the one denying Anthony. The Pacers went on a 9-0 run, clinching the game and the series 106-99.
For once, Paul George or David West couldn’t handle Anthony. He scored 39 points, finishing with 15-29 from the field and getting to the line 8 times, being perfect from there. But a team that has only one option – giving the ball to Carmelo, can’t work in the long run. Not without enough talent, defense, will and team spirit. Not with the rest of the team shooting only 33.9% from the field.
The Pacers, on the other hand, were having a special offensive night. Paul George, scoring 23 points, was 9-15 from the field; only the second time in this series in which he shot over 50%. George and Stephenson made two huge layups down the stretch as the Pacers were making their big run, with Stephenson being the one that gave the Pacers their 95-92 lead late in the fourth, and later embarrassing Carmelo Anthony in the post as the Knicks were simply giving up and throwing their hands in the air at that point.
This was special for the Pacers, who feel like they’re coming a full circle. The last time they were in the conference finals was in 2004, as they lost to the Detroit Pistons. That team was considered to be NBA title quality, but the huge brawl in Detroit next season tore it up, and sent it into rebuilding mode for a few years. The “Jailpacers” were born, and despite three consecutive postseason appearances, the crowd’s love is taking a while to come back.
During the regular season no team made the Miami Heat feel uncomfortable like the Pacers did. They struggled offensively, as expected, but their size and length on defense makes them a matchup nightmare for almost anyone, and can negate bad shooting nights with their speed and defense. Sometimes it’s Hibbert, sometimes it’s George and sometimes it’s the energy and small plays by Tyler Hansbrough.
But this team is about its starters, who all played at least 34 minutes, including Hill (42 minutes), still recovering from his concussion. The Pacers are a team without a superstar, without one clear go to guy, but it hasn’t hurt them so far. There’s talent, it’s just not centered and focused around one guy. There’s respect, will and attention to details on both ends of the floor. They need something that’s even bigger than their best to make the NBA finals, but this series against the Knicks has shows everyone it’s possible, which is more than anyone might have said about this team at the beginning of the season.