INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert’s mitt met the basketball a few inches in front of the rim and Carmelo Anthony’s hand was on the other side, pressing down, attempting to throw the ball down the hoop with force. But the 7-foot-2 Hibbert pushed back, pushed up and eventually knocked the ball away as a stunned and embarrassed Anthony was forced to accept rejection and get back on defense.
After dominating for much of the night, the Pacers had found themselves trailing in the fourth quarter against a New York Knicks team that had already fended off elimination once before in this Eastern Conference semifinal. But after Hibbert’s huge block on the NBA’s scoring champion, Anthony was never the same and the Pacers never looked back as they reeled off nine straight points and went on to finish off the Knicks with a 106-99 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“I was just doing my job. I guess it was a nice play,” said Hibbert said of the block. “We just gutted it out. We dug deep. I’m happy and I was telling everybody, ‘Act like we’ve been here before. We have a lot more work to do. But embrace the moment.’ ”
The Pacers continued their steady climb from lottery team three years ago to getting eliminated in the first round two years ago, to losing in the second round last season. They have advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2004. They will face the defending champion Miami Heat in Game 1 on Wednesday in Miami. With the game in hand in the final seconds, Pacers all-star forward Paul George lifted his hands high, waving toward the crowd as fans chanted, “Beat the Heat! Beat the Heat!”
“We’re not satisfied with where we’re at,” Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said. “We feel like there’s no ceiling on this team this year.”
Anthony scored a game-high 39 points, but he was just 2 of 7 with three turnovers in the fourth quarter. He left his feet to make a terrible pass that third-year forward Lance Stephenson picked off and turned into a three-point play on the other end that gave the Pacers a 95-92 lead they never relinquished.
Stephenson, who led Indiana with 25 points, then added two free throws and David West tipped in a Hibbert miss to put Indiana ahead by seven. Anthony dunked to bring the Knicks within 103-99 with 49.9 seconds remaining, but they wouldn’t score again.
All five Pacers scored in double figures, with George adding 23 points and Hibbert contributing 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots. Hibbert also limited Knicks all-star center Tyson Chandler to just two points in 23 foul-plagued minutes.
“We don’t have a bunch of ‘I’ guys. We have a bunch of ‘we’ guys,” said West, who scored 17.
The Pacers led by 12 points early in the third quarter and Anthony tried to bring back the Knicks with an assortment of pull-up jumpers and turnaround shots along the right block. But his one-man scoring binge hardly put a dent into the Pacers’ lead — until second-year swingman Iman Shumpert (19 points) decided that he would join Anthony in his efforts to force a Game 7.
Shumpert had five points through his first 13 minutes on the floor, then scored nine points in 64 seconds, connecting on three consecutive three-pointers to bring the Knicks within 70-69. Hibbert answered with a thunderous lefty dunk over Knicks reserve Kenyon Martin, then J.R. Smith tied the game at 72 with another three-pointer from the left wing.
The Pacers took a 79-74 lead on two George free throws, but Shumpert scored five unanswered points and Anthony had a driving layup to give the Knicks their first lead since the first half. George answered with a layup to send the teams into the fourth quarter tied at 81.
The Knicks led 92-90 when Anthony found Smith open for a three-pointer, but the team fell flat after Hibbert’s block.
After winning the Atlantic Division for the first time in 19 years and winning a playoff series for the first time in 13 years, the Knicks were left searching for answers on how their offense sputtered throughout the postseason.
Smith added 15 points but missed 11 of 15 shots for the Knicks and they got little production from starters Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni and Chandler, who combined to shoot 3 of 17 and score 10 points.
“We did a lot of special things this season,” Knicks Coach Mike Woodson said. “To walk away from tonight and say this was a disaster, absolutely not. We had high expectations when set out at training camp and our goal was to win an NBA title. . . . At the end of the day, we didn’t get it done.”