The Indiana Pacers quickly put the brakes on a rough start, asserted their will on the game and went on to pound out a huge 112-98 win over the visiting Atlanta Hawks.
My worst fears appeared to be realized at the outset of the game. The pace was fast and the long, athletic Hawks weren't finding much resistance from the Pacers, easily getting to the rim for point-blank buckets. At the 6:40 mark of the first quarter, Jim O'Brien called a time out after the Hawks pushed the lead to 20-14 by scoring on six of their last seven possessions with a layup, layup, dunk, jumper, layup and dunk.
I don't know what was said during the time out and, frankly, I don't care. For the remaining 6:40 of the first the Pacers defense dug in as the blue and gold outscored the Hawks 24 to 7. The fast break opportunities dried up for the Hawks and the Pacers tightened things up in the half court.
Meanwhile, the offense was flowing with Flip Murray and Mike Dunleavy leading the way. Jermaine O'Neal came in a gave a nice boost, hitting a couple of shots and fortifying the defense. With J.O. and Marquis Daniels coming in together, the Pacers can create some serious matchup problems.
After finishing the half with a 67-52 lead, the Pacers came out and pushed the lead to 29 points late in the third quarter. The Hawks made a run in the fourth quarter and cut the lead to 10 points. A couple of months ago, the dread of a blown game would've overtaken the building, but the Pacers have matured greatly over the past eight weeks and with some key buckets by Quisy, Dun and Flip, the Pacers held off the Hawks and closed out the game. No worries.
Some quick thoughts on this big win:
- Yes, the Pacers had their backs against the wall, had to win and played like it. But this game reveals an opening in the Hawks psyche. It wasn't a must win for the Hawks, but they could've knocked out the Pacers and secured their playoff bid. They even came out and hit the Pacers square in the nose early in the game. But when the Pacers didn't flinch, the Hawks blinked. They are a young team and their lack of a refined killer instinct was exposed. Gives hope for another couple of losses in the remaining games.
- The Pacers were emotionally up from the opening tip. 56 seconds into the game, Jeff Foster picked up a T for arguing a foul call. Jim O'Brien picked up a T later in the first quarter. At the time, these T's sent a message and Foster actually drew a couple of fouls he doesn't alway get later in the quarter.
- On the other hand, Josh Smith lost his cool in the third quarter picking up a T and then followed that up with a flagrant foul on Mike Dunleavy. Interestingly, Al Horford was the one Hawk getting into Smith and trying to calm him down. Although a rook, Horford's experience playing through the pressure cooker of multiple NCAA championship runs might be helpful for some of his teammates who haven't played through that level of pressure so far in their careers.
- Speaking of Josh Smith, he was electrifying at times. His shot was off but when he was around the rim, he's so quick off the floor he was a real problem for the Pacers.
- The Hawks' young bigs were all a problem on the glass. They pulled down 20 offensive rebounds and the Pacers didn't rebound horribly. The Hawks just have so many long, athletic players hitting the glass there wasn't much the Pacers could do. Josh Childress had 8 offensive boards. Crazy.
- Flip Murray was outstanding tonight, as he controlled the tempo for the Pacers. He actually played like a scoring point guard instead of a scoring guard playing point guard. His 20 points and 10 assists really made the difference tonight.
- Marquis Daniels had another huge effort off the bench. He played some solid defense on Joe Johnson in the second and third quarters which helped the Pacers pull away. Yeah, I know Johnson finished with 30 points, but he had to take 24 shots and he was on fire in the fourth quarter. Believe me, Quisy made it tough on Johnson. Kept him from scoring 40-plus, if that makes any sense.
- I'm starting to take Mike Dunleavy for granted, so I have to mention his efficient 28 points. Two of his four 3-balls late in the fourth quarter were huge in closing out the game. Dun's game continues to grow. Lately he's been reliable as a go-to-guy down the stretch, something that was missing earlier in the year.
- The exclamation point of the win came in the waning seconds when Josh Childress was gathering steam for a break-away jam. Danny Granger was having none of it. As Quinn Buckner put it, Danny "met him (Childress) at the summit" and stuffed the dunk attempt. Game over. Pacers still standing. What else you got, Atlanta?
- The Pacers have a tough road game at Philly on Friday. If they can maintain the level of effort and intensity shown tonight, winning will take care of itself. Won't be easy, but the Pacers have shown they'll grind for 48 minutes to earn a win which is what they need to keep those playoff hopes alive.