Indiana spent the entire season perfecting its defense.
On Saturday, it produced the biggest payoff for the Pacers in nearly a decade.
Roy Hibbert’s block of Carmelo Anthony’s dunk attempt midway through the fourth quarter spurred an 11-2 run that rallied the Pacers to a 106-99 victory in Game 6 of their second-round series, sending them into their first Eastern Conference final since 2004.
New York native Lance Stephenson scored nine points in the run, finishing with a playoff career-high 25.
”That’s why they pay me the big bucks this summer, so I have to protect the paint,” said Hibbert, who signed a $58 million contract last summer. "If all else fails, meaning the offense, I have to protect the paint.”
With players from both teams standing on the court as the final seconds ticked off and Pacers fans roaring in appreciation, the sellout crowd wasted little time breaking into chants of ”Beat The Heat!”
For Indiana, it sets up a postseason rematch with the defending NBA champs, the team that eliminated them last May after the Pacers had taken a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven semifinals. The Heat wound up winning Game 4 at Indiana and followed that with two more wins as Danny Granger struggled with a knee injury.
Indiana used the lessons from that series as motivation to improve this season and wound up beating the Heat twice at home before losing the third game of the season series at Miami. The Pacers will return to South Florida for Game 1 on Wednesday night.
With Granger missing all but five games this season because of the lingering knee injury, the Pacers put an even greater emphasis on playing defense and it showed.
Indiana led the league in rebounding, defensive field goal percentage and defensive 3-point percentage while finishing second in points allowed per game during the regular season. It was no different in the playoffs, as the Knicks found out.
New York had another subpar shooting night Saturday, making just 40 percent of its shots, and again wound up on the wrong side of a 43-36 rebounding discrepancy. In the paint, New York was outscored 52-20, and Anthony, who finished with 39 points, scored just four points in the final 12 minutes when he went 2 of 7 from the field.
Iman Shumpert added 19 points, hitting five 3-pointers, and J.R. Smith scored 15. Nobody else was in double figures.
The combination, as it had been in the previous three losses to Indiana, produced the same frustrating result.
”They have a hell of a defense. They hold down the paint. They do a great job, do a hell of a job of controlling the paint, closing it down, making it tough for guys,” Anthony said. ”You’ve got to give them guys credit, especially when they got a chance to set. Roy Hibbert gets to sit in the paint, causes havoc.”
It’s not just that.
The biggest question coming into Saturday’s game was whether starting point guard George Hill would play. He took part in the team’s morning shootaround, was cleared by the team doctors and wound up returning two days after missing Game 5 with a concussion. His return gave the Pacers a big boost.
Hill finished with just 12 points on 2-of-10 shooting but had five rebounds and four assists, and kept the Pacers composed enough to commit only nine turnovers – 10 fewer than Thursday night’s loss in New York.
The results showed up everywhere on the floor.
Paul George had 23 points, five rebounds and four assists. David West added 17 points, five rebounds and four assists, and Hibbert finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks, none bigger than the stuff on Anthony that changed the game. Stephenson had 10 rebounds and three assists in his best postseason game ever.
The reason: He wanted to avoid a trip home.
”I just didn’t want to go back to New York and play Game 7,” Stephenson said. ”Just get it done with now and I’d do whatever it takes to do that today. It showed tonight.”
The New York native made sure of it.
After George grabbed the rebound off of Hibbert’s block, Stephenson took a pass from West and scored on a layup to tie the score at 92 with 4:51 left in the game. Stephenson followed that with a steal and drove in for a layup, drawing a foul and completing a three-point play. After grabbing another rebound and making two more free throws, West tipped in a miss and Stephenson closed the decisive spurt with another layup. Suddenly, the Pacers led 101-94 with 1:53 to go.
New York never got another chance to tie the score or take the lead again despite making a far more typical 13 of 30 from 3-point range.
”It’s tough to go out this way,” coach Mike Woodson said. ”I didn’t make it happen for us and that’s what’s disappointing.”
The Pacers have a far different goal now as they get ready to face LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Miami.
”We’re not satisfied with where we’re at,” coach Frank Vogel said. ”We feel like there’s no ceiling on this team this year.”
Notes: New York failed to become the ninth team to rally from a 3-1 deficit. … Indianapolis 500 pole winner Ed Carpenter made the short trip from the track to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where he is a regular attendee. … Colts coach Chuck Pagano also attended the game. … The Knicks were 18 of 18 from the free throw line.