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Knicks fresh out of second chances

Tyson Chandler, get ready to take your mulligan. J.R. Smith and Jason Kidd? You too.

The luckiest thing about where the Knicks found themselves when they woke up Friday -- wait, has Rihanna tweeted yet, if Smith ever went to sleep at all? -- is despite nagging asides like Smith's shooting struggles, Chandler's difficult series and Kidd's mind-blowing 24-day streak without a field goal, the Knicks still gouged out the right to play on.

They stayed alive Thursday in their Eastern Conference semifinal series by having just enough guys revert to their season-long identity in Game 5. And they better be ready for the Pacers to revert to theirs now that they're back in Indy. Because the Pacers are better there. And the Knicks' situation in Game 6 on Saturday in Indianapolis is still beat the Pacers again or go home.

"I'm expecting more," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said on ESPN New York 98.7 FM's Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Ruocco Show on Friday. "It ain't scientific, and it ain't no secret. We need to go down there and win a game."

The Pacers got their first three wins in this best-of-seven series because their big men, starting with 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert, turned those games into the sort of physically pounding nights that the Knicks (and especially Chandler, lately) can't match.

Chandler has been so frustrated and off his game that it was tempting to wonder what physical problems were bothering him even before he strode off the court Thursday and headed straight to the Knicks' locker room after a season-saving 85-75 win. Chandler didn't even bother to join the brief, on-court postgame huddle that the Knicks held to celebrate. Chandler has had a bad neck for weeks, and now he says he also has a barking back.

Either way, Chandler needs to play better. Smith has to be better than the 4-for-11 shooting he provided Thursday. Raymond Felton needs to exploit the Pacers' backcourt whether Indy is again without starting point guard George Hill or not.

Hill was outplaying Felton in this series before he was a scratch Thursday with a late-diagnosed concussion. But that wasn't the only matchup the Knicks weren't dominating. All the Knicks have to play better. And they have to keep reminding themselves of this: As timely and gritty as Thursday's win was, they still led by just four with 6:40 to play. They still won by only 10 on a night the Pacers committed 19 turnovers, shot 36 percent from the floor, missed 14 free throws and saw Hibbert lapse into foul trouble.

If the Pacers fix just one of those stat lines, it's a far different game.

No wonder the Pacers were highly frustrated and hissing at themselves afterward for not closing out the Knicks.

"We blew it," Lance Stephenson said.

"The game was right there for us," David West added.

"We played soft," Hibbert muttered.

The Pacers won't play that way again in Game 6. They're likely to roar out and slam the Knicks around.

And when they do, the Knicks have to remember the pattern of this series is that the team that has been most successful at imposing its style of play is the one that wins the game.

If the Knicks are going to get their first win of this season in five tries on the Pacers' home court, they can't dither around like they did in Games 3 and 4, getting crushed in the rebounding battle or having Woodson tinkering with a bigger lineup in an effort to be something they're not.

"Our pace was much faster," Carmelo Anthony said after Thursday's win. "We sped the game up. I thought that was the key."

The Knicks need to trust that if they play good defense, space the floor, pass the ball and create good shots, they'll win. They can't let the pace slow to a half-court game and stand around watching Hibbert play like an All-Star at both ends of the floor.

It's obvious Chandler can't take on Hibbert alone. The only thing that's really stopped Hibbert in this series has been foul trouble. The Knicks' better chance of bothering Hibbert is making sure Anthony -- sore shoulder and all -- remains willing to take the sort of pounding he did Thursday by going into the paint again and again, putting Hibbert and Paul George into foul trouble almost by himself. (Celtics coach Doc Rivers praised Anthony's ability to do the same thing to Boston's big men in the last series.)

On Thursday, Anthony allowed during his postgame interview on TNT that the shoulder bothers him at times, but he's trying not to let it.

Later in the Knicks' locker room, he spoke about still believing the Knicks can become just the ninth NBA playoff team to roar back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series.

But to do that, Chandler, Smith, Felton, Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland need to milk the extra chances the Knicks earned by staying alive.

To get this series back to the Garden for Game 7, the Knicks have to keep rattling the Pacers' backcourt into disorganized offensive possessions and turnovers.

Woodson already used his mulligan for straying from the Knicks' season-long style in Game 4 but fixing it just in time for Game 5. His mistake was acting as if the team's small-ball style was the problem -- not a few no-shows among the players playing it. On Thursday, he finally got tired of that and committed more time to Prigioni and less to Kidd; more to Copeland's scoring potential and less to rusty Amar'e Stoudemire.

The Knicks still aren't out of danger. As clutch as their win was, all it did was get them (and especially their struggling players) another chance.

Now let's see what they do with it.

"The difference in the games they've won is second-chance points and hustle points," Woodson said of the Pacers. "We've gotta win the battle of the boards ... all five guys"

The Knicks have no mulligans left.

Being merely good in Indy won't be good enough.