If mental fortitude is a necessity for championship ball, the Indiana Pacers might as well fold up shop, assuming they haven't already following their 98-85 Game 3 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. The Pacers played from behind all night, fighting back throughout the fourth quarter, but let a freak shot and a bad break finish them off as they fall behind 2-1 in their best of seven series against Atlanta.
While Jeff Teague's fadeaway shot clock beating three pointer after stepping out of bounds wasn't the only issue Indiana had tonight, it proved to be the dagger in a game of unmitigated frustrations for an Indiana team that shot 37.6% on the night and couldn't overcome an otherwise good enough defensive effort from a rebounding and field goal position. The Pacers held Atlanta to just 38.4% from the floor and outrebounded them 51-41, but it mattered little with the score coming out on the wrong side for Indiana.
Indiana held two brief one point leads, but struggled throughout the night getting consistent offense. Indiana trailed by a point at the break, having held Atlanta to 30% shooting and 2-16 from three point range, but in the third quarter, however, the Hawks turned it on from deep. Atlanta made 6-12 in the quarter, allowing them to outscore Indiana by eight in the quarter.
Another Atlanta three helped push the lead into double figures at 12. Indiana pushed back from the double digit deficit multiple times, failing to close the game closer than four. With the threes came tough breaks for the Pacers. Lance Stephenson fumbling the ball was called out of bounds, resulting immediately in a Kyle Korver four point play.
The ensuing Teague three gave Atlanta crucial point swings at crucial moments and maybe Indiana doesn't win regardless, but to trail six with the ball under three is a far greater situation than down nine because the NBA replay rules don't allow for reviews on out of bounds situations outside of the game's final two minutes. The league will surely issue acknowledge Teague was out of bounds, but it won't matter, nor should it.
The Hawks came alive from the three point arc in the second half, hitting 10 as part of a 12-34 night. Nearly half of Atlanta's 73 field goal attempts came from three, and when shooting even 35% from deep while holding a huge free throw advantage to boot, it can be a winning formula. History suggests it can't be sustained, but it's been enough to give Atlanta a 2-1 advantage and the Hawks aren't playing for a championship in this series.
All told, the Hawks totaled 37 free throw attempts on top of their 34 three point field attempts, while the Pacers got to the line just 21 times. Indiana shot well from the line, but simply couldn't muster up enough offense to combat what Atlanta was doing at the line and from deep. It certainly didn't help three of the team's starters shot a combined 6-31 from the floor.
While George Hill and Paul George offered very little in the way of shooting (at 4-22 themselves), the discussion will certainly be about Roy Hibbert's continued inability to make an impact against the Hawks. He was 2-9 with two offensive rebounds and while the dreaded Pero Antic had a whopping one point on 0-5 shooting, Hibbert's continued struggles offensively is a real drag to this team, especially as they continue to try and make it work.
Frank Vogel expressed his tentative approval of continuing to work with Hibbert, in part because the alternative of Ian Mahinmi offers you even less of an offensive threat somehow, but because he knows the Pacers can't get as far as they want without Hibbert, even though they may not even get that far with him. But when missing the easiest shots in basketball and struggling to maintain control of the ball, the option for an alternative does need to be explored, especially considering Indiana's relative small ball success.
The three combined for seven of Indiana's 13 turnovers and were a combined -37, with Hill's struggles coming on 1-11 shooting. For as important as he was in Game 2 to lifting Indiana to the win, he was as much of a detriment in their loss, missing good looks, not so good looks, and a late turnover setting up two of Atlanta's 18 fast break points. Said turnover, in which Hill bobbled two passes from George, weren't entirely on Hill, but if he's not holding onto the ball with no pressure despite a less than stellar pass, Indiana isn't having success.
George himself was 3-11 with three turnovers for 12 points. Foul trouble sat him out most of the first quarter and he could never get his shot on track to help lift the woeful offensive struggles. He did have a game high 14 rebounds, but the rebounding edge proved to have very little impact on the final score, except to maybe make it a closer final than it would've been had Indiana not done a tremendous job on the boards.
David West and Luis Scola once again lifted Indiana with 16 and 17 points respectively. Both were the only two Pacers to shoot over 50%, with West propping Indiana's shooting percentage in the first half above 30% as part of his 7-13 night. Scola once again played well after some early misses, finishing up on 7-11 shooting. Scola found plenty of success as he has all season playing with Lance Stephenson, who led the Pacers with 21 points and 13 rebounds, as he worked to lift the Pacers in the fourth quarter with 12 points.
Indiana did a fairly good job once again handling Jeff Teague, who despite his three pointer, was held to an ineffective 22 points on 20 shots (six coming from the line). Outside of Kyle Korver getting his with 20 points on 6-9 shooting, Indiana really did enough defensively much of the night except putting Atlanta at the line on request. The three point shooting of the Hawks continues to be a problem, but adjustments can only do so much against a team that has the green light to keep shooting, and keep shooting, and keep shooting.
The Pacers now trail 2-1 and face another must win game on Saturday afternoon in Game 4. The series (and season) isn't lost yet, but adjustments will need to continue being made, whether it comes from outright benching Hibbert and Mahinmi, tinkering with their starting lineup, or simply hoping the shots quit going in for Atlanta and the fouls begin to even out. It's frustrating, maddening, and perplexing, but the Pacers have to go 3-1 against the Hawks moving forward to win the series with the all important Game 4 tipping off 2 p.m. ET on TNT this Saturday.