Hawks, Game 4 May Prove Key to Pacers’ Rediscovery
April 26, 2014
The race for the No. 1 seed in the East wore them down.
Their newfound fame as early-season title favorites became a distraction.
There were new faces and styles of play that posed challenges of integration with the core group.
The focus had eroded. And it became evident over the final two months of the Indiana Pacers’ head-scratcher of a regular season.
But the pesky Atlanta Hawks, with all the matchup problems they present, the confidence with which they’re playing, and the limits to which they’re pushing the top team in the conference could be just what the Pacers need to rebuild that focus in time to salvage their postseason.
That’s because over the final few minutes of the fourth quarter of Game 4 Saturday, a team whose season will be deemed a failure if it does not again reach the conference finals was rapidly approaching the cliff of a steep mountain, a mountain at the base of which rests the offseason.
“We saw our season flash before our eyes,” C.J. Watson said after Indiana’s 91-88 Game 4 win. “And we didn’t want to go down 3-1.”
That season virtually hung in the balance for the second time in four days Saturday. And for the second time in four days, the Pacers rose to the occasion.
Paul George played like a star, earning his fourth double-double in four playoff games with 24 points and 10 rebounds to go along with five assists and two blocks.
“My number was called,” George said of a big 3-pointer he connected on late in the game. “I had to deliver.”
And so did the elder statesman, David West, who brought his lunch pale and hardhat to work, methodically doing what he does when he’s right, scoring 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting. One of those seven makes was a crucial – and surprising – 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter that gave the Pacers what proved to be an insurmountable lead with less than two minutes to play.
That shot may end up being one of the defining moments of this series, as much for its unlikely source as its impact in a pivotal game.
“The way the floor was spread, Paul had a mismatch on Teague,” West said. “I just was reading George. I said, if George drives that gap, I’m gonna step into this thing and shoot it like I shoot ’em, and just made a big play.”
Another man who made some big plays Saturday was George Hill.
Ever vacillating on the timid-to-aggressive offensive spectrum, Hill was the latter on this afternoon, scoring 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including two 3-pointers.
“Coach just said to be ready for jump-shots when they (Hawks defenders) come out,” Hill said. “And if that’s what they give us, we have to take those shots with confidence.”
The Pacers are a different team when Hill shoots with confidence, and has the confidence to shoot. That was on display Saturday.
On the other end of the floor, Indiana’s defense held Atlanta to 36 percent shooting. The Hawks employed their usual spread-the-floor-and-launch-as-many-3’s-as-humanly-possible approach, and the Pacers survived it. Some of that was the Hawks shooting more like the Hawks are supposed to shoot (Atlanta shot 36 percent from beyond the arc Saturday, and they shot 36 percent in the regular season).
But some of that was the result of Indiana’s effort to close out on perimeter shooters while minimizing vulnerabilities in the paint.
The series – now tied at two games apiece – is far from over. But what if this series – this ugly, frustrating, roller coaster of a series – is exactly what the Pacers need in the opening round of a playoff campaign in which they were supposed to find themselves opposite the two-time defending champions once again with a berth in the NBA Finals on the line, but somehow lost their edge midseason?
Rediscovery can be misleading, teasing the search party with a golden mirage. We’ve seen this script before, as the Pacers turned in vintage performances over teams like the Bulls, Heat and Thunder during their extended second-half malaise.
But rediscovery can also be spontaneous. The light just…turns on.
Roy Hibbert played some 25 minutes in Game 4, finishing with six points on 3-of-5 from the floor, three rebounds and two blocks. Three months ago, that would have been a disappointment. Saturday, it was something of a renaissance for the 7-2 center. The two blocks were his first two of the postseason, and while he didn’t put many shots up, he hit three of five, and even had a dunk after coming into the contest shooting only 28 percent (7-for-25) in the series.
Seen as the chief cheerleader on the sidelines when he wasn’t in the game, Hibbert did not look like a man with a shattered psyche. He looked like a man who recognized his teammates again; teammates that he’s been in the trenches with all season, and alongside whom he came within one game of the Finals last year.
Rediscovery can come with small victories.
Evan Turner gave his new team 11 huge points off the bench in the first half of Game 4 to keep it in the game, after a nine-point, seven-rebound performance in 18-plus minutes of Game 1. He’s shooting 53 percent (10-of-19) in the playoffs so far. His teammate in the second unit, Luis Scola, had just four points on 2-of-7 shooting in Game 4, but contributed 37 points over Games 2 and 3.
Another of the newest Pacers – those who only know of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals from what they watched on television – Watson, also gave his new squad more quality minutes off the bench Saturday.
Watson opened the scoring in the final period of Game 4 with a layup to put Indiana up 68-65, setting an important tone for the seesaw contest’s final stanza.
At a critical point later in the fourth, in which the Hawks could have opened up an eight or nine-point lead with seven minutes to go should Indiana have an unproductive possession, Watson made it a productive one by hitting a big 16-footer to cut the lead to four, at 80-76.
The bolstered bench Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird put together has been indispensable in the postseason so far after a largely disappointing regular season.
Rediscovery can restore faith.
The Pacers have been longing for the taste they had in the Eastern Conference finals 11 months ago. Over the course of the 85 games they had played from their Game 7 loss in Miami last June to Saturday’s must-win Game 4 in Atlanta, they hadn’t tasted anything close to that flavor.
When West hit his trey with 1:32 to go, putting Indiana up 89-85, he was screaming as he headed down to the other end of the floor, and so was his bench.
It’s not the Eastern Conference Finals. But this one counted. It may not have served the taste, but it may very well have wafted the aroma that awakens a sleeping giant in the nick of time.
So now it’s a best of three. Two of them will be in Indiana. And if in a month the Pacers find themselves back in the conference finals, they may have the eighth-seeded Hawks to thank for waking them up.
After all, part of the rediscovery must be a rediscovery of what this group is actually fighting for.
And what it’s fighting for is something it would have been perilously close to losing had things gone differently in Atlanta Saturday afternoon.
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