Mark Montieth headshot

Pacers Facing Big Challenge

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 30, 2013, 5:35 PM

Editor's Note: Have a Pacers-related question for Mark? Want to be featured in his mailbag column? Send your questions to Mark on twitter at @MarkMontieth or by email at askmontieth@gmail.com.

Perhaps it's not enough of a sample size to make a declaration, but the trend is undeniable. Atlanta has “gone big” with its starting lineup four times against the Pacers this season, and won all four.

NBA coaches do not tend to mess with what works, so the Hawks no doubt will continue to do the same when the two teams meet in Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday in Game 5 of their playoff series. The obvious challenge for the Pacers: do something about it.

Atlanta started the now-injured Zaza Pachulia at center in the two games at Philips Arena during the regular season and came away with three- and nine-point victories. It started Johan Petro at center in Games 3 and 4 of this series, and won by 21 and 11. Given that, it could be argued the Pacers' victories in the first two games of the series were aberrations, the result of a misguided Atlanta strategy of starting a smaller lineup that included Kyle Korver, rather than proof of who's the better team. The Pacers, however, refuse to see it that way.

“They're only playing big 20 minutes a game,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said following Tuesday's light practice session at the Fieldhouse. “The rest of the time they're playing with Korver at small forward. We just have to play a better basketball game in general.”

Atlanta's bigger lineup, which places Al Horford and Josh Smith at forward positions, forces the Pacers into some awkward defensive match-ups. Paul George, their best defender, winds up having to bang with a taller player, rather than chasing the shorter and less athletic Korver around screens, as he effectively did in Games 1 and 2. Korver combined for just 14 points in those two games, hitting 5-of-17 field goal attempts. He had just six in Game 3, but hit 2-of-3 three-pointers, and exploded for 19 while hitting five three-pointers in Game 4.

“The biggest thing for us (when Atlanta goes big) is not what they do defensively, it's how we're matched up defensively,” West said. “It takes Paul off of Kyle Korver, and it puts us in situations where Josh Smith, at his size, is playing three. We had a couple of possessions (during the two games in Atlanta) where we just got mixed up. I think I'm guarding Smith, but he's actually the three. Little things like that.

“It's all part of our mental focus and part of our ability to stay engaged in the game and do what we have to do.”

A major part of the Pacers' focus for Wednesday will be establishing West offensively. The team's second-best scorer behind George during the regular season, and it's most consistent presence, he has been unusally erratic in this series. He was solid in Game 1 (13 points, nine rebounds), ineffective in Game 2 (seven points, one rebound), back to his normal self in Game 3 (18 points, six rebounds), but below par in Game 4, when he hit just 5-of-14 shots and scored 15 points – eight in the final period.

“We haven't been able to get David West going,” Vogel said Tuesday. “We talked about it today and have a great deal of confidence that's going to change.”

How so?

“We have to be creative,” Vogel said. “We understand what we have to do without getting into details.”

That partially means getting West the ball in better scoring positions. It also means West being more assertive. That's not always easy given the balance of the Pacers' lineup; all five starters are capable scorers. Beyond that, the Pacers' most advantageous match-up appears to be Roy Hibbert versus Petro, so that will be a primary focus of the low-post offense as well.

“I just have to continue to be aggressive,” West said. “I have to pick my spots. But ultimately I have to get going a little earlier. I'm probably deferring too much at the outset. I have to make sure I'm getting in a good rhythm.”

West is hardly the only Pacer in need of improvement. He and his teammates have been out-shot in each game of the series, and are hitting just 39 percent of their field goal attempts overall. Atlanta is hitting 47 percent, including 39 percent of its three-pointers.

All the Pacers need to do from here on out is play better at both ends, play harder for longer stretches of time, and show more poise. That should about cover it, eh? But while the previous two games in Atlanta were troubling for Pacers' fans, it's not exactly the first time in NBA history a playoff series has been tied 2-2, with each team winning on its home court.

What we've seen in this series reflects what we saw from the Pacers throughout the regular season. They are capable of overwhelming opponents, but can be equally underwhelming. After sweeping that four-game Western road trip, they proceeded to trail by 20 points or more in each of their final six regular season games. After winning the first two games of this series by double-figure margins, they trailed by 28 points in Game 3 and by 19 points in Game 4.

It can be argued that Atlanta is at least the Pacers' equal in talent, especially when Josh Smith is playing to his potential. But the fact remains this is now a best-of-three series and two of their remaining games are at home, if needed. Whether Atlanta plays big or small, the Pacers likely will have to find a way to self-destruct to lose the series.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.