The Knicks were more than happy to put aside the Carmelo Anthony-Kevin Garnett feud, any talk of Honey Nut Cheerios and the Celtics until they meet again in two weeks, and refocus their energy on their upcoming matchup with the surging Pacers (21-14).
Thursday night’s nationally televised matchup will feature two teams that are amongst the best defensive units in the league, particularly the Pacers who are allowing just 89.5 points per game (second in the league). The Knicks’ defense, despite slipping a bit in recent weeks, is still a premier unit. They’re allowing only 97.2 points per game. Conversely, the Pacers are only averaging 91.2 points per game (29th in a 30-team league), so they know the importance of keeping the opposition’s scoring to a minimum.
Knicks’ head coach Mike Woodson is aware of the Pacers’ offensive struggles, but said his squad must be aware that any team is liable to get hot on any given night.
“We’re not where we were in the beginning of the year, and we have to get back to that,” said Woodson. “You can’t keep spotting teams big leads and think you’re going to come back all the time. That’s just too much of an uphill climb.”
It’s unlikely that the Pacers will be able to race out to a large lead early, as they’re not an elite scoring team. They do have some guys who can get their own shots, including wingman Paul George (team-high 16.7 points per game), point guard George Hill (14.7) and power forward David West (tied for the team lead with George), but overall it’s an offense that doesn’t scare anyone.
Despite their offensive inadequacies, Indiana’s ascension has been remarkable as they’re having success without their all-star forward Danny Granger, who hasn’t played all season. The Pacers have rocketed up the standings in recent weeks, overtaking the Bulls for first place in the Central Division, winning eight of their last 10.
The Pacers’ game is an important one for a Knicks team that has slumped a bit lately. They’re 3-4 since Christmas, and have an offense that’s sputtered as well. It took a heroic effort from Carmelo Anthony to beat the Magic on Saturday night, and the Boston game was ugly on many levels.
“I think we can’t worry about making shots or not, [because] I think when we don’t [make shots], we kind of hang our heads a bit on defense,” point guard Jason Kidd said. “We still have to play defense regardless because that’s what has gotten us all these wins so far.”
This could be a low-scoring, poor-shooting affair, so points will be at a premium. J.R. Smith, long known as a gunner, acknowledged as much, sounding like he’s totally bought into Woodson’s philosophies. The Sixth Man of the Year candidate added that the key to beating the Pacers is matching their intensity.
“We have to do a better job at contesting shots and getting that rebound so we can get into our offense,” said Smith, noting how easy New York’s previous two opponents handled the Knicks’ defense in averaging 102 points per game.
Smith is known more for getting buckets, so he naturally turned the topic back to offense. But at least he’s taking the defensive end more serious, acknowledging that getting stops is a necessary evil in getting the ball back into the hands of the Knicks’ high-powered offense.
“I’m just trying to deny the ball and get my hands on loose balls so we can start the break early,” Smith said. “Even guys like Melo, who’s known for scoring, is in the huddle talking about defense. It’s not just him saying ‘score, score, score,’ he’s also getting key stops for us and defensive rebounds. That’s a plus.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.