While most bears awoke from winter hibernation weeks ago, it took the Indiana Pacers six more quarters of bad basketball—the metaphorical equivalent of a pack of predators seizing on their cave—to finally wake up.
Better late than down 2-0.
“Vintage performance” might seem a tired trope, but that’s exactly what the Pacers delivered in their 101-85 Game 2 dismantling of the outmatched, outmanned and outmaneuvered Atlanta Hawks.
As had the team’s early-season dominance, Tuesday’s display started with Paul George, whose 27 points (on 9-of-16 shooting), 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals set his team’s two-way tone.
More importantly, it was Indiana’s defense—for months the bane of any offense it encountered—that finally looked poised for a deep playoff push.
Gone was the Atlanta offense that had used impeccable floor spacing to pick apart the Pacers in Game 1, replaced by a tired, tentative attack that only grew more war-weary as the minutes wore on.
Jeff Teague, that basketball-wielding water bug who’d so effortlessly sliced and diced Indy’s interior D: bottled up, the hapless captive of a cruel kid's mason jar.
More importantly—and wholly unlike its Saturday output—Indiana’s bench finally came to the starters’ aid, highlighted by a sensational performance from one of last summer’s biggest gets.
Sadly, one Pacer in particular saw his recent demons go un-exorcised: Roy Hibbert, who tallied just six points and four rebounds in 24 minutes, bringing his six-game field-goal total to a dismal 8-of-44—this for a 7’2” center credited more than any other player with paving last year’s path to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Redemption wasn’t built in a game, of course, which is why Indy will take its demonic D and PG’s threes and a series knotted at a game apiece and move on to Game 3, if you please.
On paper, the plan seems easy: Steal one in Atlanta, take care of home business and—though it may end up taking three more games than the Pacers first believed—move on to Round 2.
But one decisive win doesn’t discount this one colossally crucial fact: Sub-.500 pedigree notwithstanding, the Hawks remain a matchup nightmare for a Pacers team that remains decidedly one-dimensional.
Teague may be the straw that stirs the sweet tea, but it’s in Atlanta’s ancillary pieces—Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carrol, Pero Antic and the rest—that its intermittent fluidity is realized.
The three-ball is key for the Hawks, but it’s by no means essential: After hitting on 11-of-30 of its attempts from deep on Saturday, Atlanta managed a middling 10-of-29 in Tuesday’s rematch—if not for the outcome, a minuscule difference.
Rather, head coach Mike Budenholzer’s biggest boon was and remains the play of Teague, around whom the Hawks were purpose-built long before the playoffs began.
The challenge Teague poses to the Pacers is a profound one, to be sure. But as their hell-on-a-string performance in Game 2 proves, it’s also a necessary one for a team that has in no way abandoned its designs on the Finals.
Writing back in early April, Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes laid out a compelling case for why—late-season stumble aside—Indiana’s early dominance still warrants recognition as the blueprint of a potential playoff monster:
It's not like that team simply disappeared. The same key players are on the roster, there's been no catastrophic injury and Vogel hasn't drastically altered the Pacers' schemes in a way that changes their team identity. Seeing as we have nearly twice as much data saying the Pacers are really good than data saying the opposite, shouldn't we conclude, at the very least, that they're closer to contender status than not?
So long as they heed their D to the greatest possible degree, it might not even matter.
Indeed, whether Indy’s offense can function efficiently is the difference between money found or—on nights when the bricks keep building—making sure the pennies go as far as possible. This house rarely plays host to a feast.
The second their defense lets up—instant famine.
While their bipolar brand of basketball should warrant Game 2's performance a Biblical pillar salt, allow us this one prediction: If Indiana displays in Game 3 the defensive tenacity it brought to bare Tuesday night, this series should be over in five games.
Rash? Perhaps. But if there’s one squad for whom a single performance can spark a surge just as quickly as a collapse, it’s these Pacers—stirred, it seems, to the springtime instincts of a once-proud team.
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