The New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers are tied at 1-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals as the series heads to Indiana for Game 3 Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. During each team's victory in Madison Square Garden — the Pacers' dominant interior defensive performance in Game 1 and the Knicks' red-hot shooting and ball movement in Game 2 — we caught a glimpse of why there is no favorite yet in this series, just two teams very capable of beating each other on any night.
Here are three key questions facing these teams that could determine this series:
Which team can translate on-paper strengths to on-court success?
The Pacers had one of the best defenses in the NBA during the regular season, and they have pretty much the ideal defensive team on paper. Roy Hibbert is a 7'2 center who can protect the rim without fouling and is capable at defending a high pick-and-roll. David West is an absolute bruiser of a power forward. Paul George is among the five-best perimeter defenders in the NBA already, Lance Stephenson is certifiably insane and can wreak havoc in the passing lanes and George Hill is quick and tough with surprising length for his height.
The Knicks have the capability of being the best offensive team in the league. They were for the first month of the season and were close during the stretch run in April. They have a star in Carmelo Anthony who can shoot threes at a high percentage, score off the dribble and post up effectively. They have a center in Tyson Chandler who sets excellent screens and is even better at rolling and finishing around the rim. Raymond Felton can shoot sometimes, but is a wizard at teaming with Chandler for lobs off the pick and roll. Jason Kidd and Iman Shumpert team with Felton and 'Melo as the best four players, sometimes, at making the extra pass around the perimeter.
Ultimately, what this series appears to boil down to is who can play to their capabilities for longer. As a defensive team, the Pacers seem better equipped to do so, but their gravest weakness is an abject lack of a bench. In their win in Game 1, D.J. Augustin was raining threes from the Madison Square Garden arc like Allan Houston. Chances are, that's not happening again, or at least not three more times. Tyler Hansbrough, Jeff Pendergraph and Ian Mahinmi are the other bench players who get in the mix, but with them on the floor life is a whole lot easier for Carmelo Anthony.
Can J.R. Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire contribute?
The J.R. Smith that carried the Knicks to the No. 2 seed and won Sixth Man of the Year has been invisible since he was ejected from Game 3 of the first round after elbowing Jason Terry in the head. In this series' first two games, he has shot 7-30. In Game 2, he was just 1-7 from three-point range, scored just eight points and committed three turnovers.
J.R. Smith showed maturation on the court this season, and he has not played stupidly the past few games. He has simply been ice cold. Whether the suspension in Game 3 last series got into his head or simply threw him out of rhythm, we'll never know. The Knicks haven't played since Tuesday, so he should have had plenty of time in the gym to work on things. If he can be a plus contributor off the bench, this series is wildly different.
Amar'e Stoudemire is the big X-factor for Game 3. The Knicks' big man hasn't played since March 7, before which he was starting to look like his old self, with eight-straight games of 12 points. Head coach Mike Woodson said he would only play 10-15 minutes, but if his offense can outweigh his undoubtedly atrocious defense for that time on the floor, his presence could swing the series decisively in the Knicks' favor, thanks to the Pacers' aforementioned bench issues.
Will anyone besides Paul George step up on offense?
Paul George has been terrific in the playoffs, but he's not Carmelo Anthony. He can't carry the team's offensive burden alone. In Game 2, he scored 20 points. The Pacers' next-leading scorer, David West, took just seven shots.
More offense has to come from West, Hibbert and George Hill. All three are capable of exploiting their matchups. Chandler is responsible for so many different moving parts on defense, Hibbert should be able to find space for his 12-footers and hook shots. West can bully Carmelo Anthony and should be shooting far more than seven times.
Hill could really turn the series. Raymond Felton has stepped up his defensive energy, but he's still Raymond Felton. Hill has had stretches in his career where he has put together outside shooting and off-the-bounce creativity. The Pacers need him to start doing it in Game 3, because as great as Paul George has been, he needs help. Lots of it.
Game time: 8 p.m. ET
Odds: The Pacers are four-point favorites, according to Odds Shark