The more things change, the more things stay the same, at least when it comes to the Indiana Pacers and their success against the Atlanta Hawks. While everyone is fixated on Atlanta's 38-44 regular season record, the history of these two teams makes the regular season records irrelevant, and the Hawks proved it tonight by straight up knocking the Pacers flat in the second half.
That doesn't make it all right, however. The Pacers fought all season for the first seed in the Eastern Conference, and it's a home court advantage that lasted all of one game as them. Indiana looked good in the opening minutes, jumping ahead 7-2, but a 16-2 response by Atlanta cued what would set up to be a long night for the Pacers, who failed to buck the trend of home teams losing on the first day of the NBA Playoffs.
Indiana fell behind by nine in the first quarter thanks to that run, a C.J. Watson three pointer at the buzzer salvaging an otherwise disastrous quarter. Things trended in the right direction for Indiana in the second quarter as Lance Stephenson brought Indiana back to tie the game at 30-30, as Paul George lifted the Pacers late in the quarter as they appeared to put themselves in the driver's seat with a 49-42 advantage.
But Kyle Korver and the Hawks pushed back with a 7-1 run to close the half as the game went into the locker room tied up 50-50. The run for the Hawks bled into the second half with an 8-0 push putting them ahead 58-50 before the Pacers pulled to within two at 60-58. At that point, the Hawks used yet another lengthy run to break the Pacers back, jumping over them with a 14-0 run to make it a 74-58 score.
Before the Pacers could get an opportunity to right the ship, the Hawks moved the score to 18 at 80-62 as part of a 30-16 third quarter. Indiana could only trim the lead to 14 early in the fourth before Atlanta swelled the lead up to 20 as the Pacers settled into a 101-93 loss and falling in a 1-0 hole against the Hawks.
Losing home court in the first game isn't uncharted territory for this team, having previously slipped up in Game 1 against the Orlando Magic in 2012. The Pacers turned the series around, winning the next four games, but the Magic, who had seen the last days of Dwight Howard, played well above themselves in that victory. The problem with this series, it doesn't necessarily appear as if the Hawks aren't going to repeat what they did three more times.
The Hawks didn't use an unfamiliar formula in their dissection of Indiana's defense. A healthy dose of Jeff Teague attacking and a whole boat load of three pointers helped keep the Pacers on their heels, especially with the Hawks winning the 50/50 battle and doing an exceptional job drawing fouls. The Hawks had the Pacers scrambling on long rebounds, coming up with 14 second chance points on just nine offensive rebounds (10 of those in the first quarter).
As well, the Pacers had 29 fouls to Atlanta's 20, leading to a +8 for the Hawks at the line. The Hawks also shot 11-30 from the three point arc, and while three point shooting is hardly sustainable across a seven game series, the way the Hawks spread the Pacers defense makes it nearly impossible to assume the quality of looks Atlanta gets won't fall, especially if Korver can get off seven a night.
The real concern with this loss is that this was supposed to be the turning point for the team. Forget the struggles, forget the woes, it was all going away because the fight for the NBA Championship has begun. But there were stretches tonight that mirrored directly with Indiana's loss to Atlanta two weeks ago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Nothing looked very positive and that's a bad sign when it comes to actually winning when it matters, like, right now.
The push from Lance Stephenson and Paul George in the second quarter was more or less the game's sole Pacers highlight in a reel full of Hawks drives, free throws, and three pointers. Stephenson was excellent when guiding Indiana back from their first quarter deficit early in the second, but he got a little too high on his own awesomeness when he began to key in on some bad plays.
George had a big second quarter with 11 of his team high 24 points, but 6-18 shooting minimized his effectiveness despite a great night getting to the line, winding up with 12 attempts, hitting nine. He was excellent in other aeras, pulling in 10 rebounds, five assists, and four steals, but there was very little to help him (and Stephenson) on the offensive end to keep pace with what Atlanta was able to do.
David West had eight points, but was limited early with foul trouble and was never really a big part of the game and his backup Luis Scola was awful, erasing all of his recent mojo with a 0-6 night. Evan Turner shot well to lead the bench with nine, but didn't make much of a stand on defense. C.J. Watson hit a big shot to end the first quarter, but effectively disappeared after that, picking up just 16 minutes and doing very little with them besides pick up four fouls.
George Hill showed some positives on the offensive end with 12 points, but struggled defensively in containing Teague, who had 28 points. The Pacers were able to handle Teague going off, but not those around him, especially Paul Millsap's 25 points. Roy Hibbert had an early bucket, but was ineffective as expected until late in the game, when he had six fourth quarter points. It'd be nice to believe those points would help Hibbert towards some kind of sustained success, but there's not been anything to suggest that will be the case.
For now, the best stance to take is that it was just one game in a seven game series, but it's certainly a troubling sign even when looking for an optimistic stance. The Pacers will now have to get things turned around enough to grab a win in Game 2 to simply keep the series from getting out of hand. From there, the Pacers have to find a win in Atlanta to get them back in something resembling control of the series, but that's a long way off when this loss will linger until Tuesday night, when the Pacers tip off at 7 ET on TNT.