The Pacers Still Have It, and They’ve Known It All Along
April 13, 2014
For 40 minutes and 36 seconds Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers beat the Hawks.
In that span, excluding a 7-minute, 24-second stretch to close the third quarter, the score was Indiana 85, Atlanta 81.
Words like "stunning" and even "embarrassing" have been used to describe the 101-93 loss to a 38-44 team, whose energetic play with nothing to lose helped it snatch away the Pacers' home court advantage in the series. The Pacers were down by as many as 20 points at one stage in the fourth quarter, and boos were again heard at The Fieldhouse.
But if you take a closer look at what transpired in Saturday's 48 minutes of basketball, the tale of the tape is not as woeful as some have made it out to be.
The Pacers' offense, which went missing in action for significant stretches in their two-month lull after the All-Star break, shot 48 percent in the first half against Atlanta. By the end of the night, Indiana had connected on nine 3-point attempts out of 21. The Pacers outscored the Hawks 38-28 in the paint (despite their inability to contain one Jeff Teague) and 16-14 in second-chance points.
Indiana outrebounded Atlanta 46-42. The Pacers held a team that shot 46 percent during the regular season to 43 percent Saturday. The Hawks attempted 30 3-pointers, using their spread/stretch offense against a defense that packs the paint to capitalize. But they made just 11 of those 30 (37 percent).
So, getting back to the final 7:24 in the third quarter. What happened?
The score at that point was 60-58 Atlanta. The Hawks opened the second half on an 8-0 run, and the Pacers answered with an 8-2 run of their own. But at 7:24, Paul George had to come out of the game. He ended up going into the locker room to get some quick treatment for a left quad contusion.
All of a sudden, Atlanta's pick-and-roll game was given a boost by having Evan Turner on the floor to switch onto Teague instead of the Pacers' best defensive player, George. Having to exchange one of the best defensive wingmen in the game in George -- who achieved a defensive win share of 6.4 after leading the NBA in that category with a 6.3 last season -- with Turner, who has struggled to learn Indiana's defensive system after coming from Philadelphia, was a huge disadvantage.
Suddenly the man filling the gap when Teague penetrated past Hill could be Turner instead of George. And one of the highlight-reel moments for Atlanta from this game came a minute and a half after Turner checked in, when Turner switched onto Teague off a pick, and Teague put a vicious crossover on him, stared him down for a split second, and hit a three from the right corner.
Overall, Turner was solid off the bench for Indiana, scoring nine points on 4-of-6 shooting and hauling in seven rebounds in just over 18 minutes on the floor. But George he is not, especially on the defensive end.
Less than a minute after George exited, so too, did David West, who picked up his fourth foul of the game when he was whistled on the offensive end trying to turn on Paul Millsap for a bucket in the paint.
To put things in perspective as to how important West is to the Pacers' defense, he finished the regular season with the same number of defensive win shares (5.0) as Roy Hibbert, who despite his late season struggles will get some consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Luis Scola had to check in for West, again weakening the Pacers' defense in the gaps when Teague penetrates. Case in point: Teague all-to-easily stepped right between Hill and Scola on his way to another bucket in the paint with 5:05 to go, extending the Hawks' lead to 11 at 69-58 and prompting Frank Vogel to take a timeout.
Nineteen seconds after play resumed, Teague marched down the court and took the ball to the rim again, this time with Millsap basically boxing Scola out, and by the time Scola moved over to help Watson, another whistle blew and Teague was at the line for two more of his game-high 28 points.
All of this is not to mention what the Pacers' lost on the offensive end in the 2:53 George was in the locker room. He had been 5-of-10 from the field for 17 points then, easily the most consistent scorer on the floor for Indiana. When he was taken out of the equation, the Pacers were outscored 11-0. Teague scored nine of those 11 points, and in less than three minutes, scored over a quarter of his 28 points on the night.
Seven minutes and 24 seconds doomed the Pacers Saturday and put them in a 1-0 series hole. Was this an epic late-season collapse bleeding into the playoffs? No. This was X's and O's. This was an Atlanta team with a chip on its shoulder coming into a series it's supposed to lose, playing freely as a result, with the Eastern Conference player of the week (Teague) to boot.
And, most of all, this was an Atlanta team that smelled blood when George and West left a weakened unit on the floor in their wake, and pounced.
"The game got away," West said after practice on Sunday afternoon. "I've gotta stay on the floor. It was a four-point game when I left the floor. It just got out of hand. Paul came to the back, he came off the floor. The game just got out of hand."
There is some credit due to the Hawks. We know that their style of offense, with a stretch-5 in Pero Antic, as well as potential 3-point threats at each position, would test the Pacers' stingy defense by pulling Hibbert out to defend closer to the perimeter. But Atlanta capitalized with Teague attacking aggressively when George and West were out of the picture. It was all the Hawks needed on this night.
The Hawks play the Pacers better than your average eight-seed would play your average one-seed. An Atlanta victory in Game 1 is not all that surprising in this series because of the matchup problems the Hawks give the Pacers. And that's why if there was some sort of bewilderment that there weren't alarms sounding and panicked voices in the Indiana locker room late Saturday night, it should be clear that there was really no need to go there.
"They got a tough cover; this is a tough matchup," George said Sunday. "They do a great job of really just driving. They got relentless drivers and guys that really test guys being in gaps, test our rotations, and they spread the floor and have guys that can really shoot."
George also noted that a big chunk of the responsibility for containing Teague going forward in this series rests with the defenders off the ball that have to rotate into gaps when he penetrates.
"It's not on the person that's guarding him," George said. "It's the person that's behind him. We've gotta do a better job of being in our gaps, being in the help spot. Because he's a load. He's got that elite speed and it's tough for one guy to be able to contain him."
Hill said Saturday's loss isn't the result of the Pacers continuing to fight through the ills that plagued them down the stretch in the regular season, but simply a game plan that didn't work out.
"We thought we had a good game plan and it didn't work out the way we thought it would work out," he said. "That happens in the playoffs. The only thing you can do is to continue to follow the game plan, and and when it's time to watch film and work on things and try to do things different and make your adjustments, that's what we have to do ... I don't think (it's the late season problems). I just think that we had a game plan that we thought would work, and it didn't work. So you've gotta adjust."
"We played good," George said. "But when you play against anybody, it's tough to have a 30-16 quarter. You give a team that advantage on your floor, comfort starts to set in and they just start to play at ease, and I thought that's what happened. We're usually the ones that come out in the third quarter and make an impact, and I thought that's what they did."
So let's not get confused about what a Game 1 loss signifies about the Pacers. Let's view it from the right perspective. And let's not forget some of the positives -- yes, there were many positives -- that came out of that game.
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