Saturday night in Las Vegas, Floyd Mayweather Jr. improved to 44-0 by unanimous decision over Robert Guerrero. Fighting for the first time in a year, Mayweather did to Guerrero what he has subjected every fighter to in his professional career: a slow, painful demolition.
The 36-year-old mixed his typical shoulder roll, head-on-a-swivel defensive brilliance with spurts of precision counterattack in the form of an absurdly accurate straight right hand — ‘Money May’ connected on 60 percent of his power shots according to CompuBox.
Watching the Pacers put a 102-95 Game 1 stranglehold on the Knicks Sunday, I couldn’t help but think I was watching a re-run, the mere difference being Mayweather’s masterpiece took place in a squared-off ring within a colossal casino, while Indiana’s 48-minute rope-a-dope of New York silenced Madison Square Garden, the self-titled ‘World’s Most Famous Arena.’
In a week, Indiana morphed from a team unable to win in less-than-daunting Phillips Arena to muzzling the owners of NBA.com’s third-best offensive rating during the regular season on its home floor.
“It’s a great feeling. Our job is to get a win,” Pacers’ point guard George Hill said to reporters postgame, speaking to Indiana’s road strategy in NYC. “If we can get two, then that’s great.”
The fulcrum of the Pacers’ Mayweatherian Game 1 defensive performance was center Roy Hibbert, the $58 million man. ABC analyst and former Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy termed the 7-2 Georgetown product the “Great Wall of Hibbert” in the latter stages of contest, summing up Hibbert’s way of luring New York’s rim-runners into the paint before stonewalling them at the basket by simply jumping straight up, not forward. Hibbert finished with five blocks and countless swallow-ups of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith.
Hibbert’s roadblock approach aided the blue and gold defense in forcing Anthony and Smith, the Knicks’ two leading scorers, into 14-of-43 shooting, including a 5-for-18 performance at the rim per NBA.com.
During the regular season, Indiana ranked first in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage and opponents’ 3-point percentage, and placed second in field goals and points allowed per game.
That elite defense wasn’t always present at the end of the regular season and in the opening round against the Hawks, but it showed up in the Garden.
But, there’s a caveat to all of this, and his name is Raymond Felton.
New York’s point guard scored 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the first quarter, leaving Hill in the dust on several top-of-the-key pick-and-rolls.
Felton tallied six points on six shots the rest of the game.
With more lane penetration from Felton and less 1-on-1 from Anthony and Smith, the Knicks should find more offensive success in Game 2 in spite of Hibbert’s emergence.
Now, three thoughts on the Pacers and the rest of the NBA:
1. Gary Washburn pulled a Fred Hickman
Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe penned a column Monday explaining why he was the lone MVP voter to not cast his first-place ballot for LeBron James, who garnered the other 120 votes — or 99.2 percent — to claim his fourth Most Valuable Player award.
Because the honor is titled ‘Most Valuable Player’ and not ‘Most Outstanding Player’ or ‘Easily the Best Player on Earth and It’s Not Even Close,’ is exactly why Washburn pulled a Hickman for Anthony.
Hickman, then at CNN, was the lone voter to give a nod for Allen Iverson over Shaquille O’Neal in the 1999-00 season because Hickman believed Iverson was “more valuable” to his team, even though O’Neal put 30 points and 14 boards a night for a 67-win Lakers team.
A portion of Washburn’s logic:
“If you were to take Anthony off the Knicks, they are a lottery team. James plays with two other All-Stars, the league’s all-time 3-point leader, a defensive stalwart, and a fearless point guard. The Heat are loaded.”
That’s all true, yet it’s all misguided.
This season, Miami won 66 games and produced the league’s second-longest winning streak ever at 27 games. James tallied 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game, shot 57 percent and was the first player ever to score at least 30 points and shoot at least 60 percent in six straight games.
James is the point man, both on perimeter and in the post, for the NBA’s most efficient offense and directed a top-ten defense in most efficiency categories.
Anthony was the league’s scoring champ (28.9), but averaged more turnovers (2.6) than assists (1.7), shot 38 percent and his team won 12 less games.
Who knows whether Washburn truly believes what he wrote in his defense, or if he chose to be an outlier for increased page views and Twitter followers. In any case, he was wrong.
2. Stephenson comfortable at home, Augustin delivers
Indiana received a pair of where-in-the-world-did-that-come-from performances from Lance Stephenson (11 points, 13 rebounds) and D.J. Augustin (16 points, 4-for-5 from 3) in Game 1.
For Stephenson, a New York City native who won four consecutive city championships playing for Coney Island’s Abraham Lincoln High School, it was the guard’s third consecutive double-digit rebounding game. Stephenson added a game-best three steals and was another culprit in Smith’s woeful offensive night.
Augustin scored 11 above his season average, and while it may be unreasonable to think he can score at that rate again this series, the fact that coach Frank Vogel trusts him enough to play the point at the same time Hill is on the court will do wonders for Augustin’s confidence.
3. James Harden would sure look good in Thunder blue right now, wouldn’t he?
Despite Harden’s impending free agency this summer and the unlikelihood of bringing back the dynamic combo guard, I really, really disliked Oklahoma City’s decision to ship Harden to Houston days before the season.
I get why Thunder GM Sam Presti did it: Harden refused to accept a franchise-friendly deal with the team — something Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook did before Harden.
Presti sold the Thunder’s young core on taking less money in exchange for years of contention while also attempting to soften the blow of upcoming luxury tax provision that kicks in for teams over the salary cap in the 2013-14 season.
In the end, Presti sacrificed winning.
NBA.com stats point out that per 100 possessions, OKC’s offense was 4.4 points higher this season when Kevin Durant, Westbrook and the acquired Kevin Martin shared the court than when Durant, Westbrook and Harden were together in 2011-12.
This is where a pro-metrics person like myself simply has to go grandpa on the numbers and say, “That’s hogwash.”
Martin is nice NBA player, one who stretches the floor with his shooting and is a reliable free-throw shooter. But Martin is not Harden, who is undeniably a top-20, franchise player capable of carrying a team offensively and performing solidly on defense in the right system.
Presti should’ve put off his Harden problem.
When you’ve got a legitimate chance to win an NBA title, that’s something you cannot mess with. And who knows, maybe the Thunder could’ve taken Miami to seven and pulled a massive upset. Would that have been enough to make Harden reconsider his thinking?
And maybe instead of Westbrook tearing his ACL in the first round, perhaps Dwayne Wade’s recurring knee problems would’ve forced him out of the playoffs. Luck works both ways.
I’m sure of this much: The Thunder cannot win the West sans Westbrook. And I’m not sure they’ll ever win a championship without Harden. (Now you know how LeBron felt in Cleveland, Durant).
Grant Freking is a sportswriter for the Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3230 or at email@example.com