After the Pacers reigned supreme at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, it turned out their dominance only exists in Indiana. Through five contests in the series, the home team has won each game by at least 11 points.
The Hawks must hold serve in Game 6 to avoid elimination, and they have to hope that their beefed-up starting five can once again outplay the formidable Pacers down in Georgia.
Game 6 Time: Friday, May 3, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Philips Arena, Atlanta, Ga.
Series Record: 3-2 Pacers
Game 6 Key Storyline: Can the Hawks Regain Their Imposing Presence?
Hawks coach Larry Drew said his team was "physically manhandled" by the Pacers in Game 1 (per AP, via Fox Sports). They were manhandled less in Game 2, but still came up short in rebounding and paint scoring.
The insertion of seven-footer Johan Petro into the starting lineup for Game 3 spurred the Hawks to a 20-point advantage in paint scoring; they won the game by 21, as Indy relied on jump shots that would not fall.
The complexion of Atlanta's Game 4 victory was different, but still highlighted by their physicality. Though the Hawks were outscored in the paint 42-28, they limited Indiana to 38 percent shooting and got to the free-throw line 13 more times.
All those advantages faded away in Game 5. The Pacers won the rebounding battle 51-28 and shot 17 percent better than Atlanta from the field.
And it's worth noting here that Petro's lack of scoring was not the problem. Though he totaled just five points, he hit two of his three shots and finished with the best floor rating of any Atlanta starter.
Instead, the Hawks' dynamic duo of Smith and Horford shot just 10-of-30 and scored 28 points. They need to go for at least 40 and do so efficiently to give Atlanta a chance at victory. Smith also made nine fewer trips to the foul line in Game 5 compared to the previous contest.
The Hawks need to reestablish their paint presence and attack the hoop to draw contact. That will help open up better opportunities for the starting backcourt, which shot 6-of-25 in Game 5.
Series Star So Far: Paul George
George has been great even when he's been awful.
His Game 1 triple-double on 3-of-13 shooting serves as a testament to his versatility and perseverance.
George is averaging 21.6 points on 45 percent shooting to go with 10 boards and 4.6 dimes per game. That double-double average clearly elevates him above Smith and Horford. He's also piled up nine steals and four blocks in the five games so far.
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; Josh Smith, SF; Johan Petro, PF; Al Horford, C
Pacers Injury Report (per CBSSports.com)
Danny Granger (knee), out for season
Hawks Injury Report
Zaza Pachulia (Achilles), out for season; Lou Williams (knee), out for season
Pacers Will Win If...
They continue their solid ball movement and shot selection.
When Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert are the team's top three scorers, that means the Pacers are playing their type of ball. They not only combined to score 63 points in Game 5, they also shot 19-of-23 from the charity stripe.
When Indy's frontcourt puts in such yeoman work down low, the points and free throws will pile up. It also draws defenders from the perimeter, and good passing will find the wide-open shot.
Even in their Game 4 loss, the Pacers racked up 22 team assists. That sharing spirit persisted on Wednesday, as they tallied 24 more, including 10 dimes from George Hill.
Indy's offensive attack is most potent when they refuse to settle for jump shots. They failed to do this in Game 3 and scored 69 points.
Since they lack a cache of talented shooters, the Pacers need to work down low and create chances in the paint. When the Hawks pack their defense down low, they need to look for that wide-open outside shot that every NBAer can knock down.
Hawks Will Win If...
They play solid defense and don't get "manhandled" on the boards.
In the Hawks' first two losses, they lost by double digits in large part because of the rebounding deficit. They attended to these failings at home and evened the series, but nothing went right in Game 5.
The Hawks could not get shots to fall, and Indy slaughtered them on the glass. Meanwhile, the Pacers shot 51 percent from the field. That's a far cry from their futile effort in Game 3 when Atlanta held them to a putrid 27.2 percent from the field.
The Pacers ranked 22nd in the league in effective field-goal percentage, which adjusts for three-pointers. They cannot win a playoff series by shooting jump shots.
The Hawks have to feed off the energy from their home crowd and ramp up the defensive intensity to fend off elimination.
They will have to practice ball denial and strong help defense down low while still closing out quickly on the perimeter. But ultimately, they will take their chances on Indy hitting jump shots, which will also give Atlanta numbers on the glass.
I'm extremely tempted to say that Indiana will seize the opportunity to close out the series, but the Hawks have taught observers not to nap on them, especially at home.
Partly because of the market that they're in and partly because they lack a superstar (Josh Smith is very good, but has never earned an All-Star nod), the Hawks are extraordinarily underrated.
Jeff Teague and Devin Harris give Atlanta one of the most athletic (and erratic) backcourts in the league. Smith and Horford's quality has been established. And they have the threat of thunder and lightning off the bench with Ivan Johnson and Kyle Korver.
Though the Pacers are the more complete team, they are just barely so. The Hawks will keep up the home-court preeminence in the series and send it back to Indy for a rollicking Game 7.
Prediction: Hawks 98, Pacers 89