Down two games to none in their best-of-seven series with the Indiana Pacers, the Atlanta Hawks might be rattled or worse when they take the floor in front of their home fans for Game 3.
At this point, though, Atlanta coach Larry Drew will take whatever emotion he can get.
The Hawks have looked disinterested in the first two games, preferring verbal altercations with the referees over physical confrontations with their bruising, battle-tested foes. The results have been all too predictable as Indiana has rattled off consecutive double-digit wins.
Can Atlanta wake up inside the arena where they've defeated Indiana in each of their past 11 meetings? Or will the methodical Pacers rock the Hawks to sleep once again?
Time: Saturday, April 27, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Philips Arena; Atlanta, Ga.
Series Record: Pacers 2 - Hawks 0
Key Storyline: Can the Hawks Find a Way to Slow Down Paul George?
Many a hoops legend has been born on the postseason stage, and Indiana's first-time All-Star has certainly looked to be on the cusp of greatness during the first two games.
The 22-year-old shook off a rough shooting night in the series opener (3-of-13) and still managed his first career playoff triple-double (23 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds). Three nights he attacked the floor with the kind of efficient effort that earned him Most Improved Player of the Year honors this season (27 points on 11-of-21 shooting from the field, eight boards, four thefts, three dimes and no turnovers in 39 minutes).
With Danny Granger limited to a spectator's role by season-ending knee surgery, George has handled the scoring duties while still displaying some of the finest perimeter defense the league has seen. Whether creating off the dribble or slashing his way to easy looks, his methodical offensive execution has been nothing short of demoralizing for the Hawks.
George Hill learned the finer things of postseason hoops during three seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, but the Pacers don't pack a mighty offensive punch beyond their two Georges. Roy Hibbert has averaged 15.5 points per game in this series, while David West has managed just 10.0.
The Hawks have the legs and athleticism to minimize the impact of the Pacers' daunting size, but none of that matters when George is running roughshod through the heart of Atlanta's defense.
Atlanta doesn't have the discipline or patience to make this a half-court series. But it has to find an answer for George before entertaining any thoughts about turning this contest into a track meet.
Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Pacers: Danny Granger (knee), out; Lance Stephenson (hip) probable
Hawks: Louis Williams (knee) out; Zaza Pachulia (Achilles) out
Projected Starting Lineups
Pacers: George Hill (PG), Lance Stephenson (SG), Paul George (SF), David West (PF), Roy Hibbert (C)
Hawks: Jeff Teague (PG), Devin Harris (SG), Kyle Korver (SF), Josh Smith (PF), Al Horford (C)
The Pacers Will Win If...
They get back to the basics.
Indiana's found a path to success predicated on efficient perimeter play, but that actually came along with a move away from the slower, defensive-oriented style that Pacers coach Frank Vogel would prefer.
The Hawks have shot at or near 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from the three in these first two games but have handed back any offensive gains in droves with lackluster effort and fading focus.
But the Pacers can ill afford to bank on their opponents not showing up, particularly with the anticipated boost that the Hawks fans will give their team.
Atlanta doesn't have the bodies, or the heart, to withstand a heavy dosage of West and Hibbert. To be fair, few teams do.
If the Georges start struggling with their shots, and history suggests that will happen sooner rather than later, the Pacers will have to find the steady hands of their twin towers to keep Indiana soaring to the second round.
The Hawks Will Win If...
They want it bad enough.
Drew delivered a cutting criticism of his team's effort after Game 1 (via ESPN.com) questioning the fight and intensity level they displayed.
Yet it was largely all for naught. The Hawks still lost the battle of the boards (47-41), gave away a minus-10 gap in made free throws (21-11) and turned the ball over 14 times.
Indiana's looked immortal in the first two games, but this same team limped into the postseason having dropped five of its past six games to close out the regular season. Atlanta has to believe that it can compete in this series—it should, as it racked up two wins over Indiana this year—then find a way to channel that positive energy into the sweat equity this series will demand.
Clearly Atlanta cannot afford another foul-plagued outing from Josh Smith, who had established himself as its strongest offensive weapon (16 points, 7-of-10 from the field, three assists) despite logging less than 20 minutes in Game 2. And it has to find a way to get Al Horford going (13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds through two games).
The Hawks have the talent to get back into this series, but nothing will be handed to them.
There's inconsistency and then there's the Atlanta Hawks.
When phrases like "checked out" are used to define a team's effort (via Scott Agness of NBA.com), there are serious gaps between player and coach, the kind that can cripple a franchise at this stage of the season.
The opening minutes of Game 3 are important in not only determining the outcome of this game, but also in foreshadowing if there's any fight left in this series. Twice Atlanta has sprinted out to early leads and twice it has given them away before the end of the period.
If the Hawks get the good Smith and Horford in this game, we may yet have a series on our hands.
But nothing from the first two games suggests that's what we'll see.
Indiana's hulking size can intimidate a mentally tough team. I can't think of the last time I heard anyone describe Atlanta as such.
Prediction: Pacers 104, Hawks 93
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