The Atlanta Hawks have a problem. Well, right now they have a lot of problems, but one is bigger than the others — they cannot stop the Indiana Pacers offense.
That would be the Pacers offense that was 19th in the NBA in points per possession this past season (or if you prefer the offense that averaged 94.7 points per game, 23rd in NBA). That would be the Pacers offense that nobody feared. Their defense was what made this team a threat. The offense was the weak link. But the Pacers put up 109 points in Game 1 against the Hawks.
Then in Game 2, they beat that and cruised through the fourth quarter to a 113-98 win. That puts the Pacers up 2-0 heading to Atlanta for Game 3 on Saturday night.
Give the Hawks credit for standing up and trying to match the Pacers energy and physicality, but while the Pacers play their style for 48 minutes the Hawks have lapses. And those lapses mean Pacers runs and the Hawks keep finding themselves in holes they cannot get out of.
Indiana got its best games from its big stars Wednesday. Paul George was aggressive from the start and finished with 27 points (on 11-of-21 shooting). George Hill had 22 points (on 12 shots) and Roy Hibbert had a strong game with 15 points and 9 rebounds.
The Hawks did a much better job of attacking, trying to get points in the paint and pushing the pace early in the game. It worked early in the first quarter, but as the pace slowed down some the Pacers got their defense set and contested everything. Hawks shot just 42.1 percent for the first quarter. Plus, that aggressiveness from the Hawks led to two Josh Smith fouls in the first three minutes of the game and he sat a long time, making the Hawks easier to defend.
At the end of the first quarter came a great example of the the kind of mental lapses that did the Hawks in. Going for a final shot Devin Harris tried to drive, he ran into the brick wall that is Hibbert so he tried to fall and draw the foul but didn’t get the call. Indiana grabbed the loose ball then the Hawks’ Johan Petro committed a foul on Paul George in the backcourt with 0.7 seconds left (George hit one of two free throws). Then the Hawks turned the ball over on the inbound and with 0.4 the Pacers got off a final shot (Hibbert knocked down a three but released it just a click after the buzzer so it didn’t count). All that may have been just one point but it really summed up the kind of lapses the Hawks had all night.
The Pacers much-feared defense, which struggled some at the end of the season, once again didn’t distinguish itself. The Hawks are scoring plenty. It’s the kind of trend that could get the Pacers in real trouble in the next round against the dangerous Knicks offense. If Frank Vogel has one thing to focus on the next few days, it is this.
But that weakness didn’t matter because the Hawks couldn’t slow the Pacers offense. It wasn’t just the shooting, it was the Pacers turning the ball over less, getting more offensive rebounds and being more aggressive so they drew more fouls.
And that aggressiveness wore the Hawks down. Somewhere late in the third quarter you could see the energy the Hawks had fade away. They had tried to match the Pacers, but by the fourth they had all but thrown in the towel. There were a couple pushes by the Hawks, but the Pacers would answer and grow the lead. The Hawks body language was that of a defeated team.
At home the Hawks may have keep that energy back up — they were a dramatically better team at home this season. They need to play faster, they need to keep their big men out of foul trouble and on the court, they need a lot of things.
But the biggest is they need to find a way to stop the Pacers offense. Fast.