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Pacers Suffer Thorough Loss

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 28, 2013, 12:56 AM

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If the Pacers were going to lose a playoff game, it was probably better to lose it the way they did on Saturday. Badly. Brutally. In such a one-sided fashion that they left Philips Arena with the equivalent of stink on their shoes, as if they had just stepped in something really foul.

Coach Frank Vogel didn't see any advantages to the nature of his team's 21-point loss to Atlanta, but I'm sticking with the theory. Not to be kind, and not to soft-pedal it, but because this team seems to have a habit of collapsing when things are going really well and then regathering and rebounding when something goes really wrong. A narrow defeat might have allowed them the luxury of blaming officials or a particular teammate or two, but this one had the impact of a sucker punch that doubled over the entire roster and left nobody blameless.

Now, logically, they should be angry and embarrassed enough to respond in Game 4 on Monday, the way they usually have over the course of the season. This is a young team that has not dealt well with comfort zones, such as it had after taking a 2-0 lead in the series with double-figure margins of victory, but it also has been mature enough to address its shortcomings.

And, man, was this a shortcoming.

The Pacers shot 27 percent from the field, including 4-of-25 three-pointers. They were thoroughly dominated after taking an 8-1 lead, trailing by as many as 28 points. Things were so bad that when they got within 18 points midway through the final period, it seemed they suddenly had a ray of hope. That was quickly extinguished, however, when Tyler Hansbrough was called for a charging foul and Paul George missed an off-balance layup in transition, then Atlanta's Jeff Teague got a baseline layup to make it a 20-point game again. At that point, Vogel could safely clear his bench for the final five minutes.

Atlanta stepped up its defense, no doubt, but too many of the Pacers' wounds were self-inflicted. They committed 22 turnovers, often failing to execute the simplest of tasks: George Hill failing to convert a post feed to David West. Lance Stephenson fouling a three-point shooter. Hansbrough's interior feed sailing through West's legs.

“Young team on the road in the playoffs, you're going to have games like this,” Vogel said.

Atlanta coach Larry Drew made the first major strategic shift of the series, “going big” by starting center Johan Petro in place of shooting guard Kyle Korver. That forced George to match up with Josh Smith, who is listed at only an inch taller and five pounds heavier than George, but appears to have a far greater weight advantage than that.

Atlanta didn't waste any time revealing its intent, going to Smith on the right block on its first possession. Smith babied a five-foot turnaround that fell short, but overall the strategy worked for the Hawks. Not because Smith played particularly well – he finished with 14 points, two less than George – but because it created better overall matchups for Atlanta and seemed to take George out of his game. He had been outstanding in the first two games, with a triple-double in Game 1 and 27 points and no turnovers in Game 2, but was pedestrian this time: 16 points, nine rebounds, five turnovers.

“I had to battle with him,” George said. “I'm not used to guarding bigs. I'm used to guys who are good coming off screens and the quicker guards. The more and more I get acclimated to guarding bigs, I'll be fine.”

Neither Vogel nor George view Atlanta's strategic ploy as an obstacle that can't be cleared. The Pacers controlled the boards 52-48, and their miserable shooting percentage had little to do with the size of Atlanta's defenders. Starting guards George Hill and Lance Stephenson combined to hit 2-of-15 shots, while reserve guards D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green were 4-of-17. Size didn't matter to them.

Still, there's a troublesome detail. Atlanta won both games at Philips during the regular season with a big lineup, when center Zaza Pachulia was healthy and playing. The Pacers have yet to beat Atlanta this season when it starts a bona-fide center, rather than moving forward Al Horford into the middle as it did in its losses – two in the regular season, two in the playoffs – at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Atlanta no doubt will stick with its current game plan on Monday, but that doesn't mean the Pacers are destined for more games like this one. History shows blowouts within a playoff series can be anomalies rather than indicators. In 2005, in the course of a seven-game series with Boston, they managed to lose by 20, win by 23, lose by 31 and win Game 7 by 27 in Boston. In 1998, when they took Chicago's last championship team to the seven-game limit in the Eastern Conference Finals, they lost Game 5 by 19 (and it wasn't that close), but came back to win Game 6 and nearly won Game 7. In 1995, they followed up the Game 1 victory in New York in which Reggie Miller scored 25 points in the fourth quarter with a 19-point loss, but won the series in seven.

The ultimate takeaway is that they have yet to learn a killer instinct. They had talked about keeping an even keel, talked about bringing the same energy to this game as the first two in the series, talked about stepping on throats, but didn't back up their words.

Thus, the tone of the series has shifted. The Pacers have a new challenge, while the Hawks have new confidence.

“Just one of those nights,” George said. “We'll be all right.”

Now Atlanta feels the same way.

“We're not backing down,” Smith said. “It should be a pretty good series.”

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