On Saturday night, in a fourth quarter on which their season and pride and hopes rested, the New York Knicks finally succumbed to the inevitability of who they are.
All glitz and no depth. A showcase for scoring devoid of enough defense for the postseason. A group led by a star more about hero ball than really helping his team. A group, as I wrote all season long, destined to do exactly what they did in the second round of the playoffs against the Indiana Pacers: Come up short.
See here, here and here for reasons why this has been obvious for most of the season.
Or look at the fourth quarter of a Pacers 106-99 Game 6 win that earns them a berth to the Eastern Conference Finals and a rematch against the Miami Heat.
Facing elimination and the looming promise of a wildly disappointing season, the Knicks went on a torrid-scoring pace in the third quarter. They scored 34 points, the most points of any quarter in this series. They drained six of their seven 3-point attempts, conjuring reminders of regular-season, deep-shot excellence. Carmelo Anthony exploded for 16 of his 39 points. Iman Shumpert stepped up for 16. In the blink of an eye New York turned a 12-point deficit into a tie game and pretended, as they did all season, they had a chance.
Until that inevitable fourth quarter.
Melo went from hero-baller to somebody-help-the-man in an instant, battling through a 2-of-7, four-point, three-turnover stretch that begged for a buzzer and an end to the misery. J.R. Smith continued his brutally bad series by also going 2 of 7. The Knicks shot 33.3 percent from the field during those critical 12 minutes, saw their season-long reliance on the fool’s gold of 3-point shooting come up suddenly worthless, and then put an ugly exclamation point to their season by basically surrendering (or forgetting about the concept of "clock management") in the game’s final moments.
The Pacers rode their defense, their identity, their slow, plodding postseason style to a showdown with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
All season, the Knicks were everything the Pacers were not. Sexy, interesting, high-scoring, dazzling, always threatening a bevy of 3-pointers and succeeding despite an overreliance on the team’s big-time star (Anthony), big-time personality (Smith) and all those threes. Never mind the Knicks’ lackluster defense, or the fact that in the postseason rebounding and defense always trump 3-point shooting and offensive-inspired adrenaline — "This was the big city, baby, and these guys were destined for greatness."
And the Pacers? They were the stuff of flyover country — boring, solid, stolid, uninteresting, surely nothing special when faced with the allure and grandeur of their big city opponents and their big-time, headline-inducing stars. Sure, Indiana was the league’s best defensive and rebounding team for most of the season, and they had in Paul George a versatile star ready to burst onto the scene, but the Pacers just weren’t . . . New York. No Rihannas, no league-wide scoring leader, no bright lights and lathering big-city buzz, no ‘Melo.
Which is exactly why the Knicks go home and the Pacers go on.
The Indiana Pacers were a team. There was no hand wringing or postgame verbal sparring over sharing the ball. Of course they shared the ball. And rotated on defense. And liked each other, or at least understood the workmanlike bond of a blue-collar team that did the dirty work needed to thrive this time of year. They shunned the klieg lights for the hard work of winning a seven-game series. They didn’t focus on making 3-pointers. They focused on defending the 3-point shot better than any other team in the league.
The Knicks were something else entirely. They were fascinating, they were fun, they were going to live or die by their high-powered ways. They scored more of their points by the 3-pointer than any other team in the league, and they had a star who was more concerned with his own box score than the more difficult journey of advancing deep in the playoffs. Melo got his scoring title, and his team got a culture not ready for what the Pacers did to them.
So this was no surprise. The team with the selfish stars, the team that needs to hit 3-pointers to win (but only plays lackadaisical defense), the team that was built for the regular-season (fun!) rather than the postseason (so-called ugly basketball) — that’s no referendum at all. That team was going to lose.
And they did. As predicted.
Another simplistic, but important, way to look at it: The Knicks ranked 18th in defensive rating this season, according to Basketball Reference. The Pacers (first), the Grizzlies (second), the Spurs (third) and a Heat team that didn’t really start trying until January (ninth) were the ones built to advance. They are now the only ones who remain.
The only thing shocking about Saturday’s game is that so many people in New York — such an incredible, wonderful, brilliant city — could in any way have found this hard to see coming.