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Pacers Look to Stay the Course, Break a Streak

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 25, 2013

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It's starting to get fun for the Pacers now. They are making plays that show up on late-night highlight reels and providing grist for locker room trash talk, and they are winning with such relative ease that the outside world can legitimately have conversations about brooms.

That will be their primary challenge now. They have defeated Atlanta by a combined 32 points in their two playoff victories, so their mindset will be their greatest obstacle. Maintain focus and humility, and they can end the series quickly and take a break before getting back to the business of Round 2. Grow too comfortable in their lap of luxury and they might figure a way to make it a competitive series again.

Let's face it, they are the better team by a wide margin in this series, and Atlanta appears disheveled. It was called for three technical fouls in the Pacers' 113-98 victory on Wednesday, when it fell behind early and stayed there, just as it had in Game 1 on Sunday.

This time, the Pacers fell behind 5-0, but never trailed from the midpoint of the first quarter. Sunday, they fell behind 6-0 but also took the lead for good midway through the opening period. Atlanta tried to ramp up its defensive pressure, but the Pacers responded by committing just 10 turnovers, four less than in Sunday's 17-point victory. Atlanta got David West in early foul trouble, but the Pacers had plenty of weapons to fill that vacancy. Atlanta got the benefit of Lance Stephenson bruising a hip late in the first quarter and sitting out the rest of the half, but Gerald Green came in and scored eight points in less than nine minutes in the half, and finished with 15 in the game to lead a strong bench effort.

Clearly, strategic adjustments won't turn the series around for Atlanta. It's a matter of the Pacers tending to their business, and coach Frank Vogel was on that watch from the moment he began talking with the media afterward. He said his team had played “a pretty complete basketball game,” but quickly added “there's still some areas we need to improve.” He wasn't happy with Atlanta's ability to hit 49 percent of its field goal attempts, after hitting 50 percent on Sunday, and he didn't like Atlanta's 17-6 advantage in fastbreak points.

The normally upbeat coach's bottom-line summary: “a pretty solid effort.”

There were some spectacular moments amid the effort, though. Roy Hibbert turned in perhaps the best dunk of his career with 1:43 left first quarter, rising over Ivan Johnson from outside the restricted area, knocking the late-arriving Johnson down, drawing a foul and completing a three-point play.

“Slowest dunk I've ever seen,” D.J. Augustin said.

“I wanted to tackle him, but I didn't want to get any techs or fines,” Jeff Pendergraph added.

Green got an equally impressive – and more rapid – dunk on the right baseline over Josh Smith with 6:32 left in the second period, one that opened a 10-point lead for the Pacers. And Green also got to play wide receiver, hauling in West's perfectly-placed one-armed pass from the opposite baseline after the Hawks had scored for a breakaway dunk just as the third quarter ended.

“That was an Andrew Luck type pass right there,” Green said. “When David was taking the ball out he was telling me, 'Go G, go G.' As soon as I saw him with the ball in his hands, I just took off.”

George Hill, who scored a quiet 22 points, made the biggest play of the fourth quarter on the Pacers' first possession, hitting a three-pointer from the right wing, drawing Jeff Teague's foul, and converting the four-point play. The Pacers led by 14 at that point and got it up to 24 before Vogel cleared the bench with more than three minutes to play.

Hibbert's dunk was ranked No. 1 on SportsCenter's Plays of the Day, while Green's was No. 3. Paul George offered no highlights of note, but turned in another superlative performance: 27 points, eight rebounds, four steals and no turnovers in 39 minutes. It had been a memorable week for him already, with Sunday's triple-double and Tuesday's press conference for winning the NBA's Most Improved Player award. The rise in his level of confidence was palpable in this game.

Now it's on to Game 3 on Saturday. It's a double-coupon game. If the Pacers win it and go up 3-0, it's difficult to imagine the Hawks even wanting to win Game 4 and come back to Indianapolis for Game 5. The Pacers' locker room offered no evidence of assumption, however. Anyone asked if they were thinking about the possibility of a sweep that would end the series quickly and allow some rest before the second round offered a quick rebuttal.

“I don't think we're a good enough group to do that,” West said. “We just have to be focused on the next game, the opening tip of Game 3.”

Here's where the Pacers' recent troubles in Atlanta becomes an asset. They've lost 11 straight games at Philips Arena, including two this season. That should help dull any sense of entitlement they might have after two dominant playoff victories. The last time the Pacers won in Atlanta was on Dec. 22, 2006 – an era ago. Their starting lineup that night consisted of Stephen Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley, Al Harrington, Jermaine O'Neal and Jeff Foster. Jackson led the scoring with 27. Rookie Danny Granger came off the bench to score nine.

So, while this team doesn't need to feel responsible for any more than the two losses in Atlanta this season, it has plenty of history to remind it of the possibility of losing, not to mention the motivation to vanquish a losing streak.

“We're 0-2 in Atlanta,” George said. “We have to remember that in the back of our heads.”

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