After the Indiana Pacers topped the New York Knicks 102-95 in the first game of their second-round playoff series, much of the attention went directly towards the Knicks’ struggles offensively and the man controlling the paint for the Pacers, Roy Hibbert.
Hibbert has been protecting the rim for the Pacers’ top-rated defense all season long. His length essentially creates a wall at the back of their scheme that has been exceptionally brilliant this year, just as it was on Sunday against the Knicks.
New York shot just 15-of-34 from the restricted area, as Hibbert sent back five of those. The 7-foot-2 center has mastered the straight up-and-down jump when ball-handlers come crashing his way off drives. If he’s not going to block the shot, he’s certainly going to affect it without fouling.
Indiana’s strategy forces teams to take shots they don’t want to and keep every player on the opposing side in front of them, rarely gambling for steals on dribble-drives or side-to-side passes.
To summarize it more simply, the Pacers don’t want to give up 3-pointers or shots at the rim. It’s that simple. To reach the level of success the Pacers have had this season on defense, you first need the personnel. And, yes, that all starts with a player like Hibbert at the back.
But what seems to be lost in the Hibbert highlights from Sunday’s victory is Paul George’s exceptional perimeter defense on two of the Knicks’ biggest offensive threats, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith.
According to ESPN’s Zone Chart, Anthony and Smith combined to shoot just 5-of-24 from the field on attempts that George was seen as the primary defender. All five of those makes came from Anthony, as Smith couldn’t find anything with the 6-foot-8 George contesting his shots.
While Hibbert’s overall defense is key to Indiana’s success, George defending both Anthony and Smith in stretches during this series will be right behind that in terms of importance.
The teams the Pacers have had some trouble against this season have been those that can shoot above-average from the mid-range, especially those with bigs who can pull Hibbert from the rim with their own individual shooting abilities. Think the Boston Celtics with Kevin Garnett and the Miami Heat with Chris Bosh.
The Knicks lack a big they can play at center to not only get Hibbert out of his comfort zone, but who can also protect the rim on the other end. They rely heavily on both Anthony and Smith to knock in those tough mid-range looks that the Pacers are so willing to give.
That’s where George’s athleticism, length and versatility to guard both a bruising, small-ball-4 like Anthony and a gunning 2-guard like Smith becomes crucial.
While George is certainly thinner than Anthony, he has been able to hold his own in stretches when Anthony looks to take him to the block and try to use his size to his advantage. While on the other hand, when Indiana switches George on to Smith — they do this to keep George out of foul trouble — he’s able to keep up with the quicker Smith and the numerous off-the-dribble jumpers that come with his game.
It takes a team to play quality defense in basketball. Any worthy coach at any level will tell you that. The Pacers are yet another prime example.
Brandon Curry is an NBA writer for Rant Sports. Follow Brandon on Twitter @ByBrandonCurry