INDIANAPOLIS — Just three years removed from the since-vetted scout hype that labeled him as perhaps the finest product in the 2010 NBA draft, Indiana Pacers All-Star Paul George used his significant all-around gifts to lead his squad to a 1-0 advantage in his team’s first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks. The Pacer swingman notched a triple-double (23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists) in the 107-90 Game 1 win, Indiana’s first postseason trip-dub since current Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson notched one nearly 15 years ago, while providing the needed spark in an odd game that Atlanta just didn’t seem up for.
The Pacers struggle offensively, ranking 20th out of 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency during the regular season (the second-lowest mark amongst the 16 playoff squads), but Atlanta’s defense allowed quick hits and good positioning in both the first and third quarters as the Pacers compiled a surprising 60 points during that combined turn. The Hawks also were a step slow on their rotations, leading to a series of hacks around the basket that allowed Indiana to take 34 free throws in the win, a huge boon to a Pacer team that struggles to top 80 points on some nights.
Worst of all was the malaise that the Hawks seemed to be working through. Larry Drew’s team did well to start with an inside-out attack early on, a surprising sight considering that Atlanta started two point guards in Jeff Teague and Devin Harris, but by the second half the Hawks just weren’t up to trying to counter Indiana’s significant defensive pressure.
And nothing typified this more than George’s play, when Indiana’s actual plays broke down.
Pacer scoring swingman Danny Granger’s absence remains an under-reported story in this postseason, mainly because George doesn’t really offer the same sort of production that Granger came through with for years. PG just doesn’t work as an easily identifiable replacement, which could be a blessing in disguise for both players, considering their differences. Paul George is an athlete, and Danny Granger tends to take what the defense gives him. George is an iffy shooter from the field, while Granger often looks smooth as silk from long range. Granger turned the ball over once a month, while George turned it over on 15 percent of the possessions he used this regular season.
George is a brilliant defender, though, while Danny sometimes lacks in that area. Paul can handle the ball in a pinch and run an offense, whereas Granger tends to float and wait for that extra pass. And in the third quarter of the Pacers’ win over the Hawks, George proved why he’s a star on the make.
The Pacer All-Star missed three of four shots, but he got the line six times (making each of his freebies in the quarter and connecting on 17 of 18 free throws in the game), and didn’t turn the ball over in 12 minutes. George (“one of the most complete players in the league,” according to Pacer coach Frank Vogel) also found his teammates for five assists in the quarter, no small feat for a player on a team that averaged just over 20 assists per contest on the season (good for 28th out of 30 NBA teams).
Meanwhile, on the other end, Hawks star and maximum-contract hopeful Josh Smith missed the same three of four shots while deciding to give both the Pacers defense and his own defense a pass. He didn’t get to the line once despite being guarded by the slower David West and the excitable Tyler Hansbrough, dishing two assists and turning it over twice during the run.
That third quarter, one that saw Atlanta outscored 26-19, went so poorly that Hawks coach Drew was forced into a regular season-esque teachable moment just to rouse his step-slow team. With a minute left in the third, Drew went with a lineup featuring Teague, Shelvin Mack, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson and Ivan Johnson, following through on a rotation that sent Stevenson, Johnson and Petro in for significant minutes for the entire contest.
It speaks volumes that Drew was all out of answers in his team’s first playoff game, left to empty the bench in order to try to get a rise out of his starters. It certainly doesn’t bode well for the rest of Drew’s time with a Hawks crew that seems to embrace indifference. And it certainly doesn’t bode well for the rest of the series.
After the game, each of the Pacer bigs involved in defending that spurt told me that this was just par for the course, and that they’d be able to anticipate anything that Drew and the Hawks threw at them, but this couldn’t have been what the Indiana frontcourt envisioned as it prepped to take on Mssrs. Smith and Al Horford. It’s one thing to anticipate taking on all comers. It’s another to have to respond to a training-camp-level substitution pattern in the first game of what could be a long playoff run. And despite the small hurdle to start the fourth quarter, the Pacers handled it expertly, as you’d hope for a team forced to defend Johan Petro, Shelvin Mack, DeShawn Stevenson and Ivan Johnson in the most crucial stages of a playoff game.
DeShawn Stevenson simply cannot be playing nearly as many minutes as Josh Smith in the second half of a winnable playoff game. And unfortunately for Hawks fans, all Smith seemed to want to talk about following the contest was his team’s 20-attempt disadvantage in the free throw-department. Sometimes the too-easy answer is often the correct one: Josh Smith? Stop taking so many flat-footed jumpers.
Especially against a defender like Hansbrough, who Smith referenced following the game. Tyler Hansbrough will attempt to block an eyebrow raise if you show him one, so why not attempt to show him a series of up-fakes until he bites?
Atlanta still has the talent and depth to make a series of this, but this was a disastrous initial effort that didn’t speak well of the players, or even the coaching staff that couldn’t get through to their starters before going with a bench-heavy lineup as the contest turned. Indiana hasn’t proven itself to be the sort of team that can be counted on to put up 107 points when needed, but the Hawks have proven themselves to be somewhat listless and disengaged during important stretches of basketball — this team either wins close ones or loses by quite a bit.
That’s a killer for a lineup and coaching staff that might be fighting to prove itself as a roster worth leaning on, as Atlanta’s front office nears its most important offseason in years.
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