by Kent Sterling
With a 31-7 record, it’s hard for home fans to find anything wrong with the Indiana Pacers on nights like this when they beat the recently respectable New York Knicks tonight 117-89 in front of another capacity crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Pacers know how to turn it on and play great long enough to earn win after win, and now lead the Eastern Conference by a full four games over the Miami Heat, who lost their third straight last night.
It’s like a Muhammed Ali fight from back in the day. Ali would accept punishment and appear disinterested until it was time to win each round, and then he was briefly brilliant. Fans wanted three minutes of magic every round, but graciously accepted what they got.
And to be honest, the Pacers were brilliant more than they were not. Minus the opening six minutes, they played outstanding basketball in every way throughout.
The Pacers are clearly capable of greatness, but know that 82 games over a five-and-a-half month regular season is a long haul and champions aren’t won through playing a great 48 minutes in January against the woebegone New York Knicks. Forty-two minutes was plenty enough, and the starters took there seats with plenty of time left to save their legs for Saturday night against the Clippers before embarking (why do teams always ‘embark’ on a road trip?) on a west coast trip.
For the first few minutes of each game, the Pacers feel out their opponent, assess how much effort will be needed to vanquish them, and then they spar until the time comes for them to win the game – and then that’s just what they do.
Tonight, the Pacers waited until the Knicks led 16-8, and then began playing a little defense and executing with focus on defense. Carmelo Anthony hit six of his eight shots to post a strangely efficient 18 points in the quarter.
By the end of the quarter the Knicks led 31-30, but like all those Ali fights where he toyed with the Jerry Quarrys of the heavyweight division, the Pacers knew exactly when to jab and when to throw a punch with violent intent.
At the end of the first half, the game belonged to the Pacers. They led 63-48, and that 18 point first quarter outburst from Anthony became a more pedestrian 20 points. The Pacers, who have had trouble with turnovers only gave the ball away three times through the first 24 minutes of play, and five times through the third quarter.
The Pacers had an agenda during tonights nationally televised game, and that was to bolster Lance Stephenson’s candidacy for next month. He was spectacular leading the Pacers with 28 points on 11-17 shooting. There was an almost impossible to describe wraparound layup in the fourth quarter that he made while being fouled that sure looked like the work of an all-star to the 18,165 who were awed.
People would think that looking at the Knicks roster with Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudamire, and Raymond Felton that they would be more competitive than they have been through most of the season or tonight. Coach Mike Woodson must have felt as helpless as the trainers of Ali’s opponents as he used timeouts to try to stop the bleeding as the lead grew from 15 to 22 then 24 and finally 28.
The game was over before it began. The Pacers knew it. The Knicks knew it. And the crowd knew it too, but that didn’t make beating the Knicks any less enjoyable.
But just as Ali’s championship bouts were 15 rounds, this season isn’t just 82 games long. It’s 82 plus a minimum of 16 wins for whomever wins the championship. Through 38 games, the Pacers are playing like champions who know when and where to deliver knockouts. Paul George scored 10 points in five minutes to start the second half to end all doubt.
It was fitting that Reggie Miller called the game on TNT. He delivered his share of knockouts in this Fieldhouse too. too.