The Indiana Pacers are proving they can beat up on everyone in the Eastern Conference these days.
Paul George scored seven of his 25 points during a decisive 13-0 fourth-quarter run, leading the Pacers past New York 81-76 on a night the Knicks were without their top scorer, Carmelo Anthony. Indiana has won 12 of 15 and swept the two other Eastern Conference division leaders this week.
”We want to compete for the one and two (seeds) and for sure want to compete for the No. 1 spot,” George said. ”We probably could be pushing one or two if we would have started off playing the way we’re playing right now.”
Clearly, the Knicks (23-12) weren’t the same without their All-Star forward, who was suspended for the game after Monday’s postgame confrontation with Boston’s Kevin Garnett. They finished with a season-low point total, shot just 34.8 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3-point range.
And the Pacers (22-14) took Anthony’s absence by pulling off a rare double – beating defending champion Miami and Atlantic Division-leading New York – in back-to-back games.
It’s about time. The Pacers came into this season with high expectations, but struggled early as they tried to adjust to life without their top scorer, Danny Granger, who still has not played because of a left knee injury.
Now, they’re rolling. Indiana has won nine straight home games, their longest streak since 2002-03, and their suffocating defense limited the short-handed Knicks to just three points over the final 6 1/2 minutes of the first quarter and into 11 straight misses during the opening part of the fourth.
”They did what they had to do to secure the win,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said.
Nobody did more than Indiana’s new leader.
George started the game by missing his first five shots, but wound up finishing 10 of 24 from the field. He also had 11 rebounds, six steals, five assists and one block on a night point guard George Hill played with bronchitis and All-Star center Roy Hibbert left twice with a bad back.
But George got help from some surprising places.
Ian Mahinmi finished with 13 points and six rebounds, and Lance Stephenson added nine points and seven rebounds.
”He (George) is just blossoming in front of our eyes with special performance after special performance after special performance,” coach Frank Vogel said. ”He’s leading our defense, which is becoming a beast and our guys are embracing that identity.”
It wasn’t just Anthony who was missing for New York. He spent the day at the team hotel.
Doctors also told Woodson to limit Amare Stoudemire to 21 minutes as he tries to work his way back from October knee surgery. Stoudemire wound up playing 21:31 and scoring nine points, and the Knicks lost starting forward Marcus Camby for all but 2 1/2 minutes of the second half after the longtime veteran re-injured his left foot.
Without those three, the Knicks were led by J.R. Smith, who had 25 points and almost single-handedly rallied the Knicks in the second half. Tyson Chandler had 12 points and 15 rebounds, and nobody else scored more than eight.
”We are short-handed, we’ve got two starters on the bench,” Woodson said, telling reporters that Camby’s injury would be evaluated after the team returned home. ”But the effort was great. We need to keep this up.”
After New York fell behind 49-38 early in the third quarter, Smith led the Knicks on a 13-3 run that cut the deficit to 52-51. He closed the quarter by scoring four more to give New York a 60-58. Chandler opened the fourth with a driving dunk to give New York a 62-58 lead.
That’s when George took over.
He drove in for a layup, then stole the ball and drove in for a dunk to tie the score at 62. After Gerald Green’s 3-pointer broke the tie and Mahinmi hit a 20-foot jumper, George came up with another steal and layup and Mahinmi finished the run with a dunk. Suddenly, Indiana led 71-62 with 4:57 to play and New York never seriously challenged again.
”It’s good that we got those wins,” George said. ”They are great quality wins against two great teams in the East right now. Everybody takes great pride in guarding their guys. Nobody wants to get scored on, on this team.”
Notes: Former Pacers star and new Hall of Famer Reggie Miller was honored with a special video during the first quarter. Fans gave him a standing ovation and chanted ”Reg-gie! Reg-gie!” as the TNT broadcaster attempted to focus on his work. … Colts coach Chuck Pagano was given a standing ovation when he was introduced during the second quarter. … The Knicks had won four of the previous five meetings in this series. … Indiana shot 39.2 percent from the field and has now six games when shooting less than 40 percent.