If lessons have been learned, we should not expect the Knicks to dress in all-black, we should not expect Mike Woodson to be kept in the dark about his players’ pre-game plans, and we should not know what to expect — good or bad on any given night, no telling which will come when — from J.R. Smith.
We also should not expect a suspension for Smith for throwing a flagrant elbow.
But then again, when you are playing against a team that plays a self-proclaimed style known as “smashmouth basketball,” maybe we actually should expect a hothead moment from the most volatile player on the court (apologies to Kenyon Martin).
The Knicks and Pacers open their second-round series Sunday afternoon after getting the pesky Celtics and Hawks out of the way on a Friday night that turned into an elimination night as New York, Indiana, Memphis and Oklahoma City all avoided the prospect of playing a Game 7.
Unlike those lucky fellows in Miami and San Antonio, there will be no extended rest period for any of those teams. The rust factor does not apply here. Nor does the rest factor.
So what factors will be the keys to this series, which was a terrific rivalry a generation ago when Reggie Miller was a player, not a broadcaster, and when Spike Lee’s courtside seats cost a fraction of what they cost now. Here they are:
- The ‘Melo Prefix Factor: What hashtag will be most associated with the NBA’s leading scorer during the regular season? Will it be #IsoMelo? Will it be #VolumMelo? If it is either of the two, don’t expect this to be a cakewalk for the Knicks. When the ball moves, New York can be an extremely dangerous offensive team. Tyson Chandler is one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the game, Pablo Prigioni has gained the trust of his employers and is not only a terrific passer, but has shown himself to be a clutch shooter and a prime candidate to steal at least one lazy inbounds pass per night. Jason Kidd has been slumping, but he has broken out of slumps before. If all those parts are working as part of the offense, good things will happen for the Knicks. If the ball gets into Anthony’s hands and stops, bad things will happen. He is most productive when he gets his buckets within the flow of the offense. But when he gets the ball and all other movement ceases, bad things happen more often than good. Ball movement equals success. Stagnation equals elimination.
- The David West Factor: Indiana’s free agent-to-be just got finished finishing off the Atlanta Hawks and their free-agent-to-be PF, Josh Smith, whose likely final game as a member of the Hawks was a well-chronicled microcosm of his career in this fine column. I pity the fool who decides it makes more sense to make a strong run at Smith than it does to go hard after West, whose game trumps Smith’s in every area except cool nicknames. But if one of the two is to be judged the smoover, the vote here goes to Indiana’s PF, who rarely has an inefficient night. No, he is not as athletic as Josh. But you know what? Athleticism can be overrated. I’ll take calm, cool and collected any day. Somebody has to keep West off the boards, and unless Woodson goes with a big lineup of Tyson Chandler at center and Kenyon Martin at the 4, that somebody is probably going to be Anthony — which means he’ll be exerting every bit as much effort on defense as he will on offense. How will that translate into what Anthony will be able to do on the offensive end of the court? Good question. That’s why it’s a key factor.
- The Tempo Factor. The Knicks are old, but they prefer to play fast. The Pacers are quite young by comparison, but they like to play at 78 RPM. (Ask your granddad). In their final two games against Atlanta, they held the Hawks to 83 and then 73 points. When they played the Knicks during the regular season, they held New York to 88, 76, 91 and 90 points as the teams split the season series. In a 125-91 victory on Feb. 20, the Pacers had their highest point total of the season (they ranked 23rd in points and 28th in assists but 1st in rebounding). If the Knicks can manage to score 100 points in any game, it should be their magic number. If the games are played in the 80s and 90s, it’ll likely come down to execution in the final 3 minutes. Which leads us back to Factor #1 — will the Knicks move the ball on critical late possessions, or will they clear out and let ‘Melo try to carry them?
- The My Award Is Better Than Your Award Factor: We already knew that J.R. Smith runs hot-and-cold more than a broken faucet. It has been that was throughout his career, and he ran hot enough times during the year to earn the Sixth Man Award. But he also missed his first 10 shots in the Knicks’ ill-advised, ill-executed all-black garb Game 5 against the Celtics, and he made only one 3-point shot in the closeout win over Boston. What we didn’t realize about Paul George, the NBA’s Most Improved Player, is how hot and cold he can run. In Game 1 against Atlanta, he had a triple-double of 23 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists, getting to the FT line 18 times. In the closeout Game 6, he had four points in 44 minutes, missed all five of his 3-point attempts, didn’t get to the line once and was outscored by teammate Tyler Hansbrough, who played 6 minutes. Both teams have other guys who can score. But the Pacers need consistency from George more than the Knicks need it from Smith if they are going to make it out of this round.
- The Jason Kidd Factor: To repeat, he is not a point guard anymore. He is a spot-up 3-point shooter, and he has a knack for knocking down daggers late in games. He is a veteran presence in the locker room, one of the coolest heads in the league, but he is a shell of the player he once was — and he is slumping. In the series against the Celtics, he shot 3-for-17. He has gone four straight games without making a 3-pointer — a huge factor because the old man took 79 percent of his field goal attempts from behind the arc during the regular season. How many times during the season did he go four straight games without making a single 3-pointer? None. Undoubtedly, unquestionably (to me) the x-factor for the Knicks. Too much Smith and not enough Kidd (assuming Kidd breaks out of this slump) is not a good thing for New York. Balance from the two of them? It’ll make all the difference.
SHERIDAN: Knicks in 7.
HUBBARD: Pacers in 6.
HEISLER: Knicks in 6.
BERNUCCA: Knicks in 7.
HAMILTON: Knicks in 6.
PERKINS: Knicks in 6.
SCHAYES: Knicks in 7.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Pacers in 6.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: Pacers in 7.
ZAGORIA: Knicks in 6.
PARK: Knicks in 7.