Neither the New York Knicks nor the Indiana Pacers had particularly easy times of it in the first round. It took six for each to advance, and the Knicks almost let their opponent, the Boston Celtics, come back from a huge deficit to send it to seven. But alas, the clear-cut second- and third-best teams in the East meet for a chance to, in all likelihood, face the juggernaut Heat in the East finals.
This series, however, is anything but clear-cut. Here are two factors that I feel loom large:
The reliability of Paul George
George is the Pacers' top scorer and possibly best player. He was pretty good in the first round. Well, in four of the games. He was mediocre in another and pretty awful offensively (2-10, four points, seven rebounds, seven assists) in Indiana's clinching Game 6 win. Needless to say, the Pacers really need Good Paul George to beat the Knicks, who are substantially better than the Hawks. One of the great things about George is that even when he shoots poorly, he contributes. In the first round he averaged 9.5 rebounds and five assists per game. But Indiana is so light offensively that the team really needs those points.
George shot the three poorly against Atlanta (7-25, .280) after racking them up all season long (36 percent on six attempts per game). But he was able to make up for it by getting to the line much more frequently than usual; he averaged eight free throw attempts per game in Round 1, after getting just 3.5 per game in the regular season. The shot wasn't falling, so he attacked. This was especially evident in Game 1, when he went 0-5 from long-range but earned 18 FTAs.
It's worth noting that the Knicks are mediocre at defending the three (No. 15 in the NBA in opponent three-point percentage) and quite willing to foul (No. 24 in opponent free throw rate). The Knicks had a seriously mediocre defensive season, and while New York's defense looked fine against Boston most of the time, how much of that is attributable to an anemic Celtics attack is a legit question. The potential of Paul George to get loose and stay that way against New York is real. Whether he can do it consistently over a six- or seven-game series remains to be seen. (The other scorer for Indy, David West, is Mr. Reliable. Forgive me for largely ignoring him; it's just that we know pretty certainly that he's likely to be really good like he always has been.)
The reliability of New York's style
Two things helped the Knicks claim the NBA's No. 3 offense this season: a distinct lack of turnovers (No. 1 in the league in turnover rate) and great shooting (No. 8 in effective field goal percentage). In terms of offense, much of the team's success is attributable to long-range shooting. The team took more threes than anyone, and finished with the No. 5 conversion rate. Meanwhile, the Knicks shot right around the league average (.487) on two-pointers. The threes gave the Knicks' their offensive identity and excellence. (All data via Basketball-Reference.com)
This season, the Pacers were No. 1 in the NBA in opponent three-point percentage, and only one team limited its opponents to fewer attempts. Based on the strength of that excellence defending beyond the arc, Indiana finished the season with the No. 1 shooting defense and No. 1 overall defense. In the first round, the Hawks shot 37-112 (33 percent) on threes against Indy. In the regular season, Atlanta was No. 7 in the NBA at 37 percent.
And, by the way, in four games against the Pacers this season, the Knicks shot 26.8 percent on threes. If the Knicks can't hit threes like they usually do, that puts immense pressure on Carmelo Anthony's isolation possessions against, quite possibly, George, one of the league's better face-up defenders ... and with Roy Hibbert, one of the best rim protectors, looming on the back line.
This is one of those cases where one team's clear top strength (Indy's perimeter defense) lines up totally with the opponent's clear top strength (NY's shooting). It's going to be fascinating to watch. Having watched New York's shooting slip in the second half of the season and J.R. Smith have a superbly rough end to the Boston series, I'm leaning Indiana's way and pick the Pacers in six.