I mentioned this briefly in Thursday's post about Jeff Teague's utterly bonkers (and shouldn't-have-counted-but-them's-the-breaks) 3-pointer late in the Atlanta Hawks' 98-85 Game 3 win over the Indiana Pacers to take a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series, but since the video's been captured and broken out, let's revisit the oft-maligned but full-throated Philips Arena faithful raining down "OVER-RATED" chants on the beaten No. 1 seeds during the final minute of play:
Hey, Pacers? Ya burnt. Ya burnt so bad.
As much respect as we have for the Pacers' body of work over the full course of the regular season — all three of us here at BDL picked Indy to advance prior to the series — it's becoming increasingly hard to disagree with the assessment of the celebratory crowd at the Highlight Factory. When the Pacers play like they did on Thursday — and as they did in Game 1, and as they did in the first half of Game 2 before turning it on in the third quarter, and and as they did for most of the last two months of the regular season — they're simply not a conference-topping, title-contending team to be feared, or even taken especially seriously.
The Pacers were outscored by 2.1 points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break, making them one of only two playoff teams with a negative point differential down the stretch; the other is the team that has beaten them two out of the last three games. That malaise has continued into the postseason, on both ends of the floor. Offensively, Indiana is averaging less than one point per possession in this postseason; defensively, the Pacers are letting the Hawks fire up a whopping 31 3-pointers per game and shoot a shade under 61 percent at the rim.
Mike Budenholzer's strategy of putting shooters at every position, starting with five-out lineups featuring a big stretch five (Pero Antic) who can defend in the post and step out on offense and continuing with smaller four-out reserve units anchored by Elton Brand down low, has left Frank Vogel flummoxed; through three games, the Hawks are very clearly winning the matchup battle in this series, due in large part to the now-impossible-to-ignore two-way struggles of center Roy Hibbert.
The Pacers' 7-foot-2 pivot has been hopeless in this series, his rim protection largely nullified by the Hawks' preference for bombing away from deep and his offensive game turned nonexistent — he's averaging six points and 4.7 rebounds in 24.3 minutes per game, and shooting just 28 percent from the field. This stat has been making the round since Thursday night, and it confirms the suspicions you likely had if you've watched Hibbert fail to finish despite deep post position against the likes of Teague, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll:
Another true statistic that matches the eye test: Indiana's been demonstrably better with Hibbert off the floor than on it during this season. In Hibbert's 73 minutes, the Pacers have been outscored by 4.3 points-per-100; in the 71 minutes he's sat, they're outscoring Atlanta by 1.3 points-per-100. There haven't been very many successful lineups for the Pacers through three games, but those that exist share one thing in common — they don't feature Hibbert.
Indiana has looked significantly better when Vogel has run out backup center Ian Mahinmi — not exactly a Joakim Noah-style mover defensively and a player who doesn't offer much offensively, but a more mobile option to stymy the Hawks' perimeter bigs who, if nothing else, isn't haunted — alongside a two-point-guard backcourt of George Hill and C.J. Watson, with some combination of Paul George, Luis Scola, David West and Lance Stephenson up front. Indy actually looked quite good during one brief Game 2 stretch that paired West and Scola alongside George and Stephenson on the wing with Watson in the backcourt — an all-offense lineup with multiple ball-handlers, shooters and capable post players — but playing that way without a rim protector runs contrary to Vogel's established identity, and he's largely been unwilling to sacrifice it ... perhaps because he knows that if he does, he runs the risk of losing an in-his-head Hibbert for good. From Mark Montieth of Pacers.com:
Vogel acknowledged that his center is “struggling with his confidence,” but also refused to commit to taking him out of the starting lineup.
“We'll look at everything,” Vogel said. “But I have confidence in Roy Hibbert. He hasn't played well in this series to this point, but I have great confidence in him.”
Pressed on the issue, Vogel said: “We're not going to quit on him, I know that.”
But the longer the Pacers stick with the status quo, the greater risk they run of continuing to be blown off the floor by a Hawks team that not have as talented a roster, but has a much clearer sense of self and plan of attack at this stage — a team that knows who it is and what it wants to do. Indiana can't say the same at this point, and George said as much on Thursday, according to Sekou Smith of NBA.com:
“It feels out of character for us to play this way,” Pacers All-Star Paul George said of his team’s scattered effort. “We can’t get comfortable with this, especially if we have a dream of winning it all. We have to be much tougher than what went on out there tonight. Our toughness is questionable right now, to say the least.”
"Our toughness is questionable right now, to stay the least." Yikes.
With Indiana's identity crisis continuing and the bombs-away Hawks — nearly 41 percent of Atlanta's field-goal attempts have come from beyond the arc in this series; no team took more than a third of their shots from long distance during the regular season — taking advantage every chance they can, the Pacers now find themselves in very, very hot water. Not only have the winners of Game 3 in 1-1 series gone on to win nearly 80 percent of the time, but if the Pacers can't dig deep and scratch out a win in Game 4 on Saturday, they'll find themselves headed back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in a 3-1 hole. If they get there, they'll be much more than just "overrated" ... they'll be damn near over, period.
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