At the start of the first quarter of Game 3, three of the first four Pacers buckets were uncharacteristically from 3-point range. By the end of the game, the Pacers had made 10 long balls and coach Frank Vogel said 25 of his team's 33 attempts were open looks.
The root of the Pacers' outburst was the Knicks' lax perimeter defense, which has been dominant throughout the playoffs with their pressure and step-ahead rotations. In fact, the Knicks are averaging a playoff-best 9.3 steals per game. But in that opening period, Pablo Prigioni unusually played off of George Hill, Raymond Felton looked lost scrambling to cover a Paul George 3-pointer and J.R. Smith was seconds late stepping out to contest a Hill 3-pointer.
Those are just a few examples of the kind of the night it was for the Knicks.
That lack of focus and intensity affected their transition game, as they only had four fast-break points. While the Knicks are not a running team, they have pushed the pace well off of their perimeter defense and wing rebounding to take hold of games in the playoffs. Case in point: The series-clinching Game 6 against the Celtics.
In that game, the Knicks owned the first quarter, 24-10, because of their on-point defensive rotations, blitzing half-court traps, quick hands and crashing the boards. In the opening period alone, the Knicks had four steals and scored four fast-break points. In the first-round series, the Knicks averaged 10.3 steals and eight fast-break points per game. But against the Pacers, those numbers have dropped to 7.3 and 5.7, respectively.
Iman Shumpert's defense and rebounding have been a big plus, but there has to be a collective effort. The Knicks' guards especially need to get more active on the glass (and box out) to prevent the Pacers from getting second-chance points, which has been a key difference in the series. If the Knicks can consistently contest shots, control misses, cause steals and then finish in transition, beating the slower-footed Roy Hibbert down the court, those easier scoring opportunities will give them more energy and confidence on defense.
Here are three other keys to Game 4:
1. Tyson Chandler's impact beyond the first quarter. In the opening period of Game 3, Chandler knocked a pass away coming toward Hibbert and contested David West on a shot attempt, which made him pass the ball out of bounds. On the other end, the center hit a rare jump shot, finished an alley-oop dunk and made a putback layup, and-1. Chandler did it all in the first quarter, but then trailed off throughout the game.
2. Prigioni needs to play in the fourth. In the Knicks' Game 2 win, Prigioni was a huge reason behind their run in the final period. He normally sits then, but Felton was injured. Felton was back in Game 3, but the Knicks' team offense sunk down the stretch without Prigioni. In fact, Carmelo Anthony didn't make a field goal, and he plays well alongside Prigioni, who has been the team's best point guard. Felton can be an off-guard for his penetration and shooting.
3. More pick-and-rolls with Anthony. Melo is scoring the most points per pick-and-roll (1.4) in the playoffs, but he's only run the play 25 times. The Knicks need more offensive balance, and Melo in pick-and-rolls -- with his quickness, strength and quick release -- will help them create easier offense. The key is Melo's passing as a point forward. If the Knicks inject more ball flow, it will boost their 3-point looks. How about minutes for Chris Copeland?
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