The Indiana Pacers enter Tuesday's Game 2 of their best-of-seven first-round playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks coming off a stunning and dispiriting home-court loss, facing serious questions about their core identity and internal makeup, and possibly fighting for their postseason lives, since it's difficult to envision a team that's fallen apart as utterly as the Pacers have over the past three months climbing out of an 0-2 hole on the road, especially at Philips Arena, where they're 2-6 since Vogel took over midway through the 2010-11 season. The Pacers desperately need to find a spark to regain some of the "gold swagger" that carried them to the seventh game of last year's Eastern Conference finals and through the first 3 1/2 months of this regular season, and they need to find it quickly, lest they put themselves in grave danger of becoming just the fifth No. 1 seed in NBA history to be toppled by a No. 8 seed in the postseason, the third to be ousted in Round 1 since the advent of the seven-game opening-round series, and the first since the Memphis Grizzlies knocked off the San Antonio Spurs back in 2011.
While Frank Vogel and his coaching staff will look to make Xs-and-Os adjustments to prevent the Hawks' plethora of floor-spacing shooters from stretching the Pacers' D beyond its breaking point and allowing jitterbug point guard Jeff Teague to repeatedly slice his way to the rim, shooting guard Lance Stephenson apparently plans to take a simpler, less subtle and more blunt approach, according to Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star:
"(The Hawks) threw the first punch," Stephenson said. "Now we gotta punch more." [...]
"Be physical from the start and don't wait till the second quarter when the refs call fouls," Stephenson said. "I'm going to try to come out early and throw the first punch and get some assists, get some rebounds and get the tempo out running."
On one hand, increased aggression would certainly be welcome for a Pacers crew that has, at times, seemed content to let the game simply happen to them since the All-Star break, rather than seizing it by the scuff of its neck with stultifying defensive pressure as they did earlier in the season. And if said aggression carries over to the offensive end, then so much the better.
Indy's struggles to contain Teague or contest the Hawks' perimeter shooters were the headline item in Game 1, but the ongoing putrefaction of the Pacers' offense — 42 percent from the floor, seven missed free throws, 17 turnovers leading to 25 Hawks points and a Game 1 offensive efficiency of 98.8 points per 100 possessions, which would've been the second-worst mark in the league during the regular season, and is even worse than Indy's awful post-All-Star break scoring rate — was just as significant a problem for Vogel and company. While Indiana's ranked either near or firmly within the bottom third of the league in terms of pace (average number of possessions per 48 minutes) in each of Vogel's three full seasons at the helm, and Indy hasn't profiled as an especially dangerous fast-break offense, anything that can pick up the pace of execution for the Pacers — more forceful and successful ball screens, more intentional off-ball cuts, more decisive moves with the basketball, more confident shots, etc. — figures to be particularly important. And if that includes a couple more possessions in which Stephenson pulls down a rebound and makes a hell-bent-for-leather, straight-arrow drive at the rim that forces the Hawks to either concede a one-man transition layup or sacrifice a rotation piece to getting run over by the Brooklyn-born freight train, well, that'd be OK, too.
On the other hand, though, merely throwing more punches is unlikely to be enough of an answer for the Pacers; work-rate's fine, but a higher proportion of those shots need to be power punches, and they need to connect. More effective work in the half-court — like, for example, looking to make more frequent hay out of successful sets like these — would be nice. So, too, would be getting the desired effect out of switching All-Defense wing Paul George onto Teague for at least parts of Game 2. And with all this talk of punching, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the MMA-gloved David West and famed MMA trainee Roy Hibbert, who have to produce more than 16 points on 19 shots when given the chance to work against Paul Millsap, Pero Antic, Mike Scott or Elton Brand on the block, especially in the early going, if they want to seize control of Game 2.
Even if they do, though, it's incumbent upon the Pacers to be prepared for a long fight, and not to get too complacent when the battle gets past the midway point.
All season long, Indiana was a murderous after-halftime club, outscoring its opposition by a whopping 278 points during third quarters and posting a "net rating" (a measurement of whether you outscore your opponent or get outscored by your opponent over the course of 100 possessions) of +14.6; both numbers were far and away the best in the league. While the numbers weren't nearly as gaudy in the midst of their post-All-Star swoon, they were still strong — Indy was a +26 in third quarters after the midseason break, outscoring opposition by 4.3 points-per-100, a top-10 mark and the fourth-best in the East.
That dominance completely reversed in Game 1, as Atlanta blitzed Indiana after halftime with a 30-16 third quarter that saw Teague (14 points on 4 for 5 shooting from the field and 5 for 6 from the line) and Millsap (13 points on 4 for 7 shooting, four rebounds) completely take over. George tried to answer; he went 1 for 7. Hibbert tried to make his presence felt on the interior; he turned the ball over three times in eight minutes and didn't get a shot up. Stephenson had three tough but makable looks; he missed them all. Add it all up, and a 50-50 halftime tie got turned into a laugher heading into the final 12 minutes.
“The third quarter we got stops," Kyle Korver said after the game, according to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That was the biggest thing for us. We got stops and were able to get out and run. That is when we are at our best. We don’t want to play against that set defense with Hibbert at the basket."
With their shooting, their spacing, their pick-and-roll play and the Pacers unable to put the ball in the basket, they rarely had to. If Vogel's adjustments and Stephenson's promised increased aggression aren't able to create more scenarios in which Atlanta's taking the ball out of the basket and trying to start their offense against a Pacers team set in the half court, then no matter how many punches Lance and his pals promise to throw, Indiana could once again find themselves taking it on the chin.
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