One of the big NBA storylines over the past few weeks has been the continued struggles of the Indiana Pacers. After rushing out to a sizable lead in the Eastern Conference, Indiana dropped behind Miami at one point, before finally rallying to re-take the number-one seed.
However, even with the way that Indiana limped down the stretch, not many people seriously expected the Atlanta Hawks to challenge them in the first round. This is, after all, the same Hawks team that lost their star center, Al Horford, to a torn pectoral muscle early in the season, and barely held off the disastrous Knicks for the East’s eighth seed.
But you can throw out everything that’s happened up to this point because a 38-win Atlanta squad holds a 1-0 lead in this series. So the question now becomes, are the Pacers headed for a downfall of epic proportions in the first round?
The obvious takeaway from Game 1 is that the Hawks’ big players, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap, really showed up when it counted. Teague scored 28 points and dished out five assists while Millsap provided 25 points and eight rebounds. Aside from their stars playing well, the Hawks shot pretty well from the outside, hitting 11 out of a franchise-record 30 three-point attempts (36.7%). And this is exactly where Atlanta’s advantage lies in the series – outside shooting.
Indiana knew well in advance that their opponent is a perimeter-oriented team. David West said as much before Game 1 when he called the Hawks a “jump shooting team.” But the Pacers didn’t do a great job of forcing Atlanta out of their comfort zone. This isn’t a team that’s going to take many shots over Roy Hibbert and West in the paint. They’re going to put the ball in Teague’s hands in isolation sets and let him create opportunities with his quickness.
Closing out on Atlanta’s shooters wasn’t Indiana’s only problem. Their go-to swingman, Paul George, scored 24 points, but hit just 6-of-18 shots. West wasn’t much better as he made 4-of-10 attempts in a quiet, 8-point effort. Hibbert’s 4-of-9 shooting didn’t look so bad, until you consider that he made two garbage-time layups near the end. Then there was Louis Scola, who was the opposite of firepower off the bench with his 0-for-6 shooting effort. Coupled with the loss, it’s no wonder why Scola was later seen staring at the locker room floor.
Finally, there was the third quarter, where Atlanta went on a game-defining 14-0 run that put them ahead by a score of 74-58. From here, it was all about protecting their lead for Atlanta, which they did fairly well en route to a 101-93 victory.
Indiana is of course trying to remain optimistic about their outlook. “It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating, but it’s a long series,” George said following the disappointing loss. “It’s just one game and that’s the way we have to look at it.”
However, this one game was on the home floor of the NBA’s best home team. Now they face the prospect of having to win four out of six games, with three of these contests being in Atlanta. It’s not an impossible task for a talented team that looked so good to open the season. But the Pacers have to find a way to keep the Hawks from continually spreading the floor and getting open looks from beyond the arc.