As you’d expect, the Indiana Pacers put up a brave face and consistent tone following the team’s somewhat shocking 101-93 defeat on Saturday night, a professional reaction following a disappointing home loss in the first game of their opening round playoff series to the Atlanta Hawks. The group had worked all season to earn the first seed in the Eastern playoffs bracket, purportedly to play a Game 7 in Indianapolis against the Miami Heat sometime in June, but in one two and half hour mid-April flourish the team quickly lost first round home court advantage to what some have surmised to be the worst NBA playoff team ever.
The 38-win Hawks expertly attacked Indiana’s strong and weak points in the Game 1 win, though, pulling the Pacer big men away from the basket while relentlessly attacking a step-slow Indiana offense that constantly had a hand in its face. Nowhere was this more evident than a 30-16 third quarter turnout in Atlanta’s favor, one that had the Pacers completely out of sync on both ends, struggling to communicate defensively while missing the mark with cuts and misdirections offensively.
Somehow, Atlanta was fantastically efficient against what was the regular season’s best defense. Kyle Korver was allowed several open looks to start the contest, DeMarre Carroll was given room to cut without much resistance, and Jeff Teague morphed into an All-Star during one isolation set after another. Following the game, Paul George compared Teague to Derrick Rose and John Wall in terms of quickness, but he was too kind and too far off in his estimation. Jeff Teague is a fine player, and he finished with 28 points in the win, but a dominating Jeff Teague shouldn’t be credited with toppling the league’s best defense on their home floor.
No, that would be the handiwork of the Pacers. Even after four regular season games against the Hawks – including a 107-88 thrashing in what Indiana then regarded to be its low point in its season earlier in April – the Pacers seemed ill-prepared to handle a rather orthodox Hawk lineup. Center Roy Hibbert was charged with following All-Star Paul Millsap around, and he did a fantastic job in holding him to six points on seven shots in the first half, but it drew the rim protector away from the paint as the Hawks spun their way around his teammates. Forward David West and guard George Hill were rarely on the same page in defending the pick and roll, and Paul George was drawn out of the action while chasing both Korver and Carroll.
The 50-point first half was bad enough. The 30-point third quarter was a borderline abomination. And prior to taking in media questions following the game, West, George, Hill and reserve center Ian Mahinmi had a long, spirited but mindful discussion about the footwork and positioning needed to defend that most basic of plays: a pick and roll run by a 38-win team.
Of course, it’s a long series. David West reminded the media of as much after the game. As did Paul George. As did Pacer coach Frank Vogel. The team, nearly to a man, carefully spit platitudes at the microphones and tape records, and one wonders if the Pacers at this point are more or less banking on a sub-.500 regular season Atlanta Hawk team to fall apart, rather than getting Indiana’s own act together.
West wasn’t exactly dismissive when he called the Hawks “a jump-shooting team” following the loss, and he’s not wrong in that summation either. Atlanta wants to play on the perimeter, it wants to draw both Hibbert and West away from the rim with Millsap and center Pero Antic (who hit two of five shots from behind the three-point arc) and it wants to find ways for Kyle Korver to work his magic. Following the game, George claimed that Indiana would be “fine” if they just managed to find a way to close out on shooters, but in reality the Pacers were lucky to finish just eight points behind – Korver and others had several missed open looks that weren’t becoming of the league’s best defense.
The Pacers don’t appear to feel comfortable while playing ahead, they failed to ably close out on a Hawks team featuring a healthy Al Horford during the 2013 playoffs, and their months-long swoon can’t be pegged on one repeated worry.
It’s George Hill’s inability to probe the defense.
It’s Luis Scola, who missed all six shots before glumly staring silently at his locker following the contest, and his failure to provide spacing.
It’s Lance Stephenson, once again pairing the sour with the sweet, forcing shots but at times looking like the only Pacer that cared to contribute.
It’s West, once again struggling against a Hawk team he swore following the game that didn’t have his number.
It’s Paul George, missing two-thirds of his shots, unable to work as a go-to swingman against an Atlanta lineup team that he knows far too well.
And it’s Roy Hibbert, who seems to have devolved from a dominant fringe MVP candidate to a 7-foot anachronism within a few months’ time. Hibbert had his shot blocked twice by Kyle Korver, his 4-9 shooting mark was pumped up by two easy garbage time makes, and he offered little but pablum following the game.
The Pacers are right. This is a long series; and while they won’t discuss as much, the Hawks are not a great basketball team. Even if the Pacers sustain these struggles, Indiana can still beat the Hawks in a best-of seven, regardless of a home court deficit.
“We just have to keep playing together,” Lance Stephenson offered following the loss, “and playing smart.” It seems like a sound outlook on paper, by a guy that at times seems like Indiana’s most pivotal player.
This presumes the Pacers have been playing together, though, and that they have been playing intelligent basketball. That hasn’t been the case in weeks, and if it doesn’t cost them against the relatively lowly Atlanta Hawks, it’s certainly going to cost them in the second or third rounds.
Assuming Indiana gets there.
- - - - - - -