Since the Hawks pulled off their stunning Game One road upset over the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, a large sum of Knicks fans have voiced their envy, and hastily cobbling together e-protest signs with “That could have been us!!” scrawled in bold, all-caps fonts.
It’s only natural to have these feelings as a fan, but to say the Gothamites too would’ve knocked off the Indianans largely inaccurate. Here’s why.
Even without the crippling chemistry issues that have been made apparent in past weeks, the Hawks would give the Pacers a ton of problems with their spaced out starting lineup. Three Hawks starters shoot above the 35% mark from downtown, including the league’s top “DEAR GOD. DON’T LEAVE HIM OPEN” guy, Kyle Korver, and the stretchy, versatile PF, Paul Millsap. The other two spots are manned by guys that shoot the three at a 32% clip: Jeff Teague, Atlanta’s lead dribble-drive threat, and center Pero Antic.
What makes this lineup so deadly against the Pacers is their ability to pull key defenders out of help positions, knowing good and well the last thing Indy wants to do is up is the three ball. So instead of Hibbert being able to slide over and contest, he remained wary of the shooters at Atlanta’s disposal, leading to either easy scores inside or out.
Take for instance this Teague drive, where Hibbert glues himself to Millsap in the corner, leading to two points for Atlanta.
On this play, David West helps on a Teague drive, leaving Paul Millsap wide open for three.
The biggest beneficiary of Indiana’s defense being spread thin was Hawks point guard Jeff Teague, who lit up the Pacers for 28 points. Teague is one of the fastest players on the ball, though his ability to change speeds and hesitate to set up a defender (though effective) can make his ludicrous speed less immediately evident. He was at his road runner-esque best in Game One, slicing and dicing even a noted perimeter defender like George Hill.
They finished 18th in offensive efficiency during the regular season, but the Hawks finished with 101 points and an offensive rating of 112.4, even versus the league’s top defensive squad. The Knicks finished as the league’s 11th best offensive team (and 4th since Bargnani’s injury), so you might assume that the ‘Bockers too would’ve lit up the scoreboard.
The transitive principle (alas) doesn’t apply here. The Knicks have abandoned any resemblance of the space-hungry team they were last season when Carmelo Anthony played the four. Even though the team’s offense picked up considerably in the 2nd half of the season, Amar’e Stoudemire’s promotion to the starting five made New York a three-out team compared to Atlanta’s five-out approach. If you’ve followed this team all year (I’m so, so sorry), the idea that they could have adjusted is a stretch, considering former head coach Mike Woodson faced this same problem in last year’s postseason and made changes that were detrimental to the spacing issue – moving Kenyon Martin into the starting five – instead of helpful.
The Hawks ran an abundance of clever sets to get looks for their shooters: weak side flares, pin downs for Kyle Korver, things the Knicks simply don’t do. One relevant measure would be the Hawks finishing second in the NBA in assist ratio, while the Knicks were 25th.
Where Jeff Teague excelled, Raymond Felton would falter. With Roy Hibbert and co. able to help, Felton would have a tougher time finishing around the basket, if he even got there. Hill is much better equipped to check the slower and worse-handling Felton than he is the blistering Teague.
On the other end, Atlanta was able to take full advantage of a lifeless Pacers offense. Lance Stephenson and Paul George took turns isolating for the majority of this game, a terrible strategy that was shut down by Korver and DeMarre Carroll – criminally underrated system defenders.
Against the Knicks, Indiana would be able to generate countless mismatches because of New York’s tendency to switch at every given opportunity. So while Indiana’s offense has often been a bleak joke, it would be marginally better if, say, Lance Stephenson ended up being defended by Tyson Chandler, or if Roy Hibbert went up for a putback with only a confused and/or disnterested J.R. Smith available to box out.
In addition, Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer flexed his creativity in a manner that caught the normally rock-solid Pacers off guard. It’s certainly possible that the creative sets that were everywhere during the 2012-13 season might have returned. It’s also possible that I’m writing this while riding on a unicorn that burps bearer bonds. In the opening minutes of the second half, Budenholzer had his team trap high pick and rolls with Hibbert, forcing the center to try and make a play from the top of the free throw arc. Despite Indiana having the 4-3 advantage, Hibbert wasn’t able to make a play and the Hawks opened up the third on an 8-0 run.
And what about Carmelo’s shoulder? Melo was diagnosed with a labrum tear but played through the pain for two weeks, shooting under 40% from the field and just 20% from downtown during these contests. The team announced surgery wasn’t necessary, but with those shaky shooting numbers and moments of visible pain from Anthony, it’s tough to pinpoint how much he would physically be able to bring to the table.
To say the Knicks would steal one on the road against the Pacers in convincing fashion would be willfully disregarding exactly what kind of team the 2013-14 Knicks are. Remember, even during the team’s push to nab a postseason bid, the Knicks gave up 51 points in a quarter to the Lakers. The Knicks couldn’t execute in the final minutes against the Wizards. The Knicks showed no desperation, determination or heart until it was too late. The notoriously crummy Hawks faced and equal or greater number of crippling injuries as the Knicks and had a worse roster on paper to begin with. They made it, the Knicks didn’t. They put on a textbook performance in enemy territory and it’s pretty to think the Knicks would’ve done the same thing; the facts just don’t bear that out.