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Pacers Find Answers for Game 6?

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 29, 2014 | 1:30 a.m.

The Pacers now have a season and reputation riding on one game, Thursday in Atlanta, where they will either end one of the most disappointing campaigns in franchise history or force a Game 7 back on their home court.

This qualifies as a desperate time, and therefore calls for a desperate measure.

Then again, is it really desperate to change the starting lineup when you're down 3-2 and in danger of becoming the sixth No. 1 seed in NBA history to lose to a No. 8 seed? The bold thing would be to go with the status quo.

“I consider everything at this point,” Frank Vogel said in the wake of his team's 107-97 loss to the Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday.

First up for consideration should be benching Roy Hibbert, who appears to have regained his enthusiasm but still went scoreless in 12 minutes, 13 seconds on Monday. Hibbert simply doesn't match up well against Atlanta's spread-eagle offense, and those minutes would have been awfully handy to have back at the end of the game when the Pacers rallied from a 30-point deficit to within nine with four minutes still to play, but ultimately ran out of time.

Changes to the starting lineup, or even playing rotation, aren't as simple they're often made out to be, given the lack of time for preparation between games in a playoff series, but a team trailing 3-2 doesn't have the luxury of getting virtually nothing from its starting center. None of the voices heard in the Pacers' somber postgame locker room could be heard calling for a drastic change. David West even went so far as to say “we can't change our starting group.”

But then what's the meaning of a “starting group” when it only plays together for a few minutes. Hibbert played 8:57 in the first half and the first 3:16 of the third quarter, and then took a seat on the bench. He hasn't played in the fourth quarter since Game 1. Having him start Game 6 on the bench wouldn't exactly qualify as a sea change. More like a ripple.

The Pacers' predicament is hardly all of Hibbert's fault. The bench play has been sporadic. David West, normally their most dependable clutch player, missed four foul shots and a couple of shots within five feet of the basket on Monday. Lance Stephenson charged into the lane for a dunk, only to wedge the ball between the rim and backboard.

Atlanta has had otherworldly moments in this series, too, some that defy preparation or explanation. Second-year forward Mike Scott hit 31 percent of his three-pointers during the regular season and was 2-of-9 in this series before Monday, then proceeded to hit all five of his attempts in the second quarter, when the Hawks outscored the Pacers 41-19. He unintentionally banked one of them from out front, the surest indication of a team owning fate for the evening.

Overall, Atlanta hit 9-of-11 three-pointers in the second quarter, and 15-of-27 in the game.

“We had a couple breakdowns in coverages, but we didn't have nine of them,” Vogel said. “You gotta give them credit. Some of them were guarded threes.”

When they were down 30 midway through the third quarter, the Pacers' lineup consisted of Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson, Paul George, David West and George Hill. That group got Atlanta's lead down to 20 by the end of the period. Stephenson and Ian Mahinmi started the fourth quarter but Mahinmi was subbed out less than three minutes later and Stephenson was back on the bench with 5:23 left. The group that started the comeback from 30 down finished the game from there, and got within nine points twice before it was too late. Their last reasonable hope came after Paul Millsap missed twice and the Pacers got the ball back, but George missed a three-pointer with 1:10 left that could have made it a six-point game.

Still, the lineup worked.

“They added a lot more shooting for sure, but I thought it was more what they did on the defensive end than what they did on the offensive end,” Kyle Korver said of the Pacers’ comeback. “I thought defensively, they were really tough. We had a tough time getting looks. And when they got stops, they got out and ran and got us scrambling a little bit.

“They got us to turn the ball over and they were able to get out and run. They really came at us.”

It could be argued that the lineup change didn't matter as much as Atlanta succumbing to human nature and relaxing with that 30-point lead. The Hawks did, anyway.

“We just stopped being aggressive, doing what we do,” Jeff Teague said. “We played into their hands and that was a good coaching decision by (Vogel). But now we know they have a smaller lineup they can go to. We’ll be all right.”

Maybe. But the Pacers' struggles aren't about caring, effort or togetherness as much as they're the result of structure and execution. Lack of ball movement and lack of people movement, especially. They've found lineups that successfully addressed those issues, though, so this seems as good a time as any to go with them.

For 48 minutes if necessary.

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