INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers have long had trouble scoring, relying on their stout defense to break away from lacking teams and make their way up the Eastern Conference ladder. If the Atlanta Hawks are going to make a habit of allowing the Pacers the chance to score 113 points a contest, as happened Wednesday night, then Indiana might be well on its way to its first opening-round sweep since the 2003-04 season. Indiana leads the series 2-0 after a 113-98 win, with Atlanta offering precious little resistance along the way.
The Pacers wasted no time in pulling ahead early, taking advantage of a step-slow Hawks defense on their way to a borderline shocking 59 first-half points. Though the Hawks had their way in transition early, the Pacers continued their foray to both the free throw line and front of the rim. Pacer swingman Paul George, who was handed the 2012-13 Most Improved Player trophy before Game 2, was potent offensively once again, scoring 27 points on just 21 shots, while managing to roam expertly defensively while keeping tabs on Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver.
Because George likes to help and play the passing lanes, it was expected that the Hawks would use the Pacers’ aggression against them in reaction to Korver’s anonymous 2-for-7 showing in Game 1. The Hawks refused to bear down on Korver’s screens, though, and even when Korver found himself open (as happened several times in the third quarter), he failed to connect. Kyle scored nine points, but he missed seven of 10 shots.
Hawks star Josh Smith missed darn near the entire game, getting yanked after two quick fouls in the first quarter, his third whistle in the second quarter, and his fourth foul just minutes into the second half. It was a curious and ultimately destructive decision-making process for Hawks coach Larry Drew, who erred on the side of caution to eventually do what he had hoped the foul trouble wouldn’t force him to — keep Smith out of the game. The ploy made little sense, as Smith was off the court while the Pacers pulled away, only returning in the fourth quarter once the game was just about out of reach.
A shame, too, because Smith had a fantastic game overall. It’s true that the Hawks forward was settling for too many long jumpers, but the jumpers were going in as he scored 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting in just under 20 minutes of play. Al Horford rebounded from a questionable 28-minute outing in Game 1 to play 38 minutes in the loss, but he was constantly at odds with referee Ken Mauer, picking up a technical foul in the first half after a series of non-calls. Smith was also taken out of the game by the referees, complaining ceaselessly during the contest about a Paul George double-dribble (there was no double-dribble), and after the loss to reporters about the same terrible double-dribble misdeed Mauer perpetrated.
Those non-calls weren’t the problem. It was the series of no-shows defensively that put Atlanta away. Pacers like George Hill, Gerald Green and D.J. Augustin aren’t lights-out shooters, but they are capable from behind the 3-point arc. Most importantly, those capable percentages are going to shoot way up while left wide open from behind the 3-point line, and the trio combined to shoot 9-for-17 from long range in the win, mainly in a second and third quarter barrage that helped Indiana pull away. Painful, for a small Hawks lineup designed to cover shooters and force the second-lowest offensively rated team in the playoffs into a tough night out.
Again, Drew made things tougher on himself than he had to. As was the case in Game 1, Drew went for significant stretches with lineups featuring DeShawn Stevenson, Ivan Johnson, Dahntay Jones, and Johan Petro. Not in addition to several Hawks starters, mind you, but all on the court at the same time. The Pacers are capable of shutting down even the league’s top offensive units with their athletes and strong interior presence, they’re quick to adapt (a strong transition game from Atlanta was shut down expertly in the second half by the Pacers), and they enjoy physical play — so how do you think the Pacers are going to react to a lineup full of offensive zeroes like that?
It’s true that the Hawks let the referees and Indiana’s tough play get to them, but Drew made things so much harder with his rotation choices and his decision to take Smith out after every whistle. The Hawks' bench just couldn’t compete with the Pacers' starters.
This isn’t to say Indiana hasn’t had its issues. David West has put together a great series defensively, but he only shot 1-for-4 in the win on Wednesday. Quick guards can take advantage of the Pacers in transition, surprisingly even after made baskets on the other end. And though the lead got up to 20 points a few times in Game 2, Indiana didn’t exactly wipe the floor with a Hawks team that was both going through the motions and fielding motionless players.
Still, Indiana is outhustling the Hawks, and the team’s execution (especially in plays directly following a timeout, a credit to Pacers coach Frank Vogel) is clearly superior. The Pacers won’t be able to bottle the 220 points they scored in the first two games of this series to use later, but they know damn sure how to get to those digits.
Atlanta, despite what can sometimes be a lacking home crowd, is a very good home team, and the Pacers (at 19-21 during their shortened season) have their problems away from Indiana. With that in place, it’s been proven that a stray elbow, loose-ball pickup, or disagreeable call from a referee can take the Hawks right out of the game. If Atlanta is banking on the home crowd to help overcome its concentration, execution, and honest-to-goodness rotation troubles in Games 3 and 4, Hawks fans might be in for a letdown on Friday and Sunday.
The Hawks could be two losses away from the end of their playoff run, and the beginning to a summer that could see several key members of the team plus its head coach walk away as their contracts expire. Frankly, Drew’s team is playing like it can’t wait for July to show up.