Source: USA TODAY
NEW YORK — It’s been 185 days since Roy Hibbert stalled Carmelo Anthony’s drive to the basket in midair; 185 days since Lance Stephenson erupted for 25 points in Game 6, proving the worth and wait Larry Bird had invested in him; 185 days since the Indiana Pacers sent the New York Knicks abruptly into their summer vacation.
Indiana added to New York’s misery Wednesday night, sticking a dagger into the heart of a struggling Knicks team in the latest chapter of a stirring Eastern Conference rivalry the Pacers have owned of late.
It was Paul George this time seizing center stage late in the fourth quarter and not relinquishing it until the Pacers had earned a 103-96 overtime victory at Madison Square Garden.
Indiana’s All-Star guard sank three free throws with 5.2 seconds left to force overtime, then carried his team in the extra session, scoring nine of the Pacers’ 14 points. He finished with a season-high 35.
Twenty-one of those came in the fourth quarter and overtime.
It was the most recent addition to George’s growing late-game résumé, one that began to blossom last season and shined throughout Indiana’s six-game victory over the Knicks in last spring’s second-round playoff series.
“Sensational,” was how Pacers coach Frank Vogel described George. “To carry the offensive load the way he did and have to guard Carmelo Anthony for basically 48 minutes, I don’t know where he finds the energy. But it’s special.”
Indiana (10-1) appeared out of hope until George drew a foul on the Knicks’ Iman Shumpert on the Pacers’ final possession in regulation. Trailing by three, George baited Shumpert into contact as he launched a 3-pointer from the left wing.
“I felt it,” George said of Shumpert’s arm while he lofted the potential game-tying shot. “He definitely fouled me.”
Knick fans at the Garden vehemently disagreed, reining boos down on referee Joey Crawford for several minutes after he blew his whistle.
“It was a contested shot,” said Shumpert, choosing his words carefully after the game. “It doesn’t really matter what I think.”
Said Carmelo Anthony: “If he fouled him or not, I don’t know if he did, I can’t answer that.”
So George went to the line with a chance to tie it. It was just six months ago, in Game 1 against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, when George stood in the same spot.
He drained all three then.
He drained all three Wednesday.
“He’s one of the best in the league, and I don’t say that just because he’s my teammate,” Pacers guard George Hill said of George.
After Anthony missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer, the game went to overtime.
It was all Indiana — all George, really — from there.
He had all three of the Pacers’ field goals in the extra session and outscored the Knicks (9-7) single-handedly. Hill added 23 for Indiana, while Anthony led New York with 30 points, but shot just 10-for-28.
“It’s a tough way to let it slip out of your hands,” Anthony said. “I thought we had the game won. In overtime they just walked away with it.”
It was a telling victory for a Pacers squad that seemed to have no business being in the game late. New York jumped to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter and controlled much of the contest thereafter. Indiana shot just 37% from the floor, its lowest percentage of the season.
But the Pacers’ late-game resolve, hardened by those lengthy playoff runs over the past few seasons, proved a deciding factor in the closing minutes.
“Heck of a win for our guys, grind-it-out kind of game,” Vogel said. “Sometimes, when we’re at our best, the offense wasn’t really flowing and the defense really buckled down.”
The victory keeps with the early returns this season of these two playoff teams from a year ago. The Knicks, battling a rash of injuries, fell to 3-8 and just 1-6 at home.
Indiana, meanwhile, begins a new win streak.
They can thank Paul George for that.
Zak Keefer writes for The Indianapolis Star, a Gannett affailiate.