INDIANAPOLIS – Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but Wednesday night’s Indiana Pacers/Atlanta Hawks game was a one-sided affair mostly dominated by the team that seemed to showcase more effort, with the losing squad sent to the showers after a night partly spent complaining to the referees about calls gone wrong. The Pacers and Hawks just can’t seem to stop playing according to script.
This doesn’t mean there weren’t advancements, as the Pacers downed the Hawks by a 106-83 score in Game 5 of their first round series. The Pacers took a 3-2 lead in this back and forth by recommitting to the inside game, with both center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West (who finished with a game-high 24 points) receiving look after look in their respective comfort zones. The two combined for 30 first half points and 42 overall, with Hibbert being afforded sound low post looks and West picking his spots with both drives and jumpers from the top of the key.
By the time the third quarter hit, the Hawks began to sink a bit defensively in anticipation of continued Pacer interior play, which allowed Indiana All-Star wing Paul George and guard George Hill to take over. George had been dominated in the two previous games by Hawks forward Josh Smith, but with Smith receiving his third, fourth and fifth fouls in quick order in four and a half third quarter minutes, George was allowed to pile up his efficient tally – making his first seven shots before missing his final attempt, scoring 21 points while pulling in 10 rebounds and dishing four assists.
Smith had a night to forget, mixing his rough Game 1 performance with his injury plagued Game 2 outing in Indiana on his way to a 14-point night on 5-16 shooting. His teammate Al Horford was not much better in missing nine of 14 shots, and the Hawks seemed to be on the losing end of each of Indiana’s stated points of defensive emphasis: Kyle Korver was unable to wrest himself free for three-pointers, while speedy guards Jeff Teague and Devin Harris were incapable of finishing after using their quickness to acquire passable looks. The starting Hawks backcourt finished its night with a 6-25 mark from the field.
This isn’t to say Atlanta didn’t have its chances, which should worry the Pacers as they head into yet another potential loss in Georgia during Game 6, and the likelihood that both teams will be back in Indiana to square off for a deciding Game 7 on Sunday.
Atlanta entered the second half down seven, but smarter shot selection and fewer quick fouls could have changed the team’s fortunes. Hawks coach Larry Drew was rightfully criticized for keeping Josh Smith on the bench for too long with foul trouble in Game 2, but he skirted the opposite end of that convention by letting Smith stay on the court after he picked up his fourth foul with just under nine minutes to go in the third quarter. Not only were the referees calling a tight one (there were an astounding 72 free throws in this game), but Smith seemed incapable of adjusting to the quick whistle, which is why he picked up his fifth foul less than a minute later.
In-game adaptation hasn’t been a hallmark of this series. Both coaches have done fine work between games in adjusting lineups and rotations, and in Game 5 it was Indiana coach Frank Vogel’s turn to move the trenches around.
Vogel dumped Gerald Green from his rotation in Game 5, going with Jeff Pendergraph (who had seen minutes at backup center at times earlier this series) along with Tyler Hansbrough off the Pacer bench. Though Hansbrough played well against Smith defensively earlier in this series, Pendergraph was asked to cover the high-flying Hawks small forward, and he came through with a successful defensive turn. Eschewing the points scored in transition, the Hawks managed just 18 points in the paint all evening, a poor number for a team that has done its best work pounding the ball inside with its massive front court.
The Pacers were just too active across the board. Defensive-minded guard Lance Stephenson snuck in to grab 12 defensive rebounds as Pacer bigs Hibbert and West worked on covering and contesting shots. West was a consistent beneficiary of broken plays and swing passes, as the Pacers did fantastic work off of broken plays with their improvisation and extra passing. The caveat to that compliment would be to point out that Indiana was maddeningly consistent at wasting the early seconds of half court possessions and whiffing on entry passes, but the team more than made up for it with its 50 percent shooting and 106 points in the end.
This series will return to Indiana, though, for that Game 7.
The Hawks had plenty of opportunities to fold in this contest, and though the final 23-point margin gave the look of a blowout, the team’s mettle after its initial third quarter meltdown was impressive. Smith and Horford returned to the fold mentally, and though Teague made some mistakes (even looking off a wide open Kyle Korver from behind the arc to take his own 28-foot three-pointer in the fourth quarter) they kept the attack up. Mix in that moral victory with the 13 actual victories the Hawks have scored in a row over Indiana in Atlanta, and you can just smell the Game 7 from here.
Would it kill either team to make an actual close game out of it?