The Indiana Pacers may have stumbled into the postseason, but looked anything but out of sync after a jittery start, finishing off the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round series 107-90. The score wasn't completely reflective of the game, but the Pacers did continue to inch the point gap wider as the game progressed, keeping Atlanta at arm's length after scoring 34 first quarter points.
Indiana fell behind 6-0 to open, but used a 13-2 run to gain a lead they wouldn't relinquish through the remaining 42 minutes. The Pacers shot the ball well early, led by George Hill, before an active Paul George began to live at the free throw line. The Pacers led by eight after one, held off some surges from the Hawks in the second quarter. Indiana scored 58 points at halftime, but did so while having some defensive issues, especially inside, where the Hawks thrived, scoring 30 of their 50 points in the paint, giving Josh Smith and Al Horford free reign against the Pacers front line.
In the second half, the Pacers came up big, limiting points in the paint to eight, pushing the rebounding edge to +16, and getting key plays from their key players. The Hawks made some efforts to push the game within 10, but Indiana's ability to get to the line, Atlanta's inability to hit free throws when they did, and a little extra hustle made it a game that was never truly in jeopardy. The Pacers ran the lead all the way up to 17 by the time the buzzer sounded, and the result was six double figure scorers, one triple-double, Tyler Hansbrough hustle, 15 offensive rebounds, 30-34 free throw shooting, and eight steals to edge the Hawks in the Game 1 victory.
Paul George was the go-to all game, getting to the free throw line at will against Kyle Korver, going 17-18 from the line by the end of the night, which tied Reggie Miller's NBA franchise record for most free throws in a playoff game. George used free throws to compensate for a 3-13 shooting night, never once letting his struggles to hit shots deter him from attacking the rim and looking for the explosive play.
It would've been a quality night from Paul in that regard if he didn't finish the night with a triple-double, but he came up big all around, ending with 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists. Despite his poor shooting, it was exactly the kind of game the Pacers needed from George to not only kick start the team's postseason, but his as well, in hopes that he can in fact be the go-to guy when the Pacers need some points. As if that weren't enough, George tacked on a huge block in transition to save a pair of points.
It's these kinds of games that you're thankful to have a player like George Hill, quietly scoring 18 points on 7-10 shooting to help Indiana along to the win. George's 18 was a big counter to some early concerns about Atlanta's backcourt when Jeff Teague (who led Atlanta with 21) and Devin Harris got easy looks against the Indiana defense. Atlanta's speedy guard play is going to be a big factor in Atlanta's ability to compete in the series, and Hill's ability to either get stops or respond on offense will be necessary. Hill hit his first six shots, digging the Pacers out of their first quarter funk for the win.
In the TNT studio, Shaquille O'Neal sent out some tough love to Roy Hibbert, who had eight first half points but no rebounds, saying the big fella needed to play to his size and impose his will on the undersized Hawks defense. It seemed a little unnecessary given the first half offensively ran through Hill and George, but his part in Indiana's poor interior defense as well as not getting a single board was certainly part of a valid criticism. But Hibbert was a big part in Indiana's defensive turnaround in the second half, limiting Atlanta to eight second half points in the paint as part of 40 overall, while scoring eight and grabbing eight rebounds in the second half.
Lance Stephenson had stat stuffer special today, doing a little bit of everything for the Pacers, scoring 13 points, grabbing five boards, four assists, and three steals. Stephenson's activity has been a key for Indiana all season, and his ability to frustrate the opposition in a number of different ways was in full force tonight, getting a hard foul from DeShawn Stevenson and helping to limit Devin Harris to just eight points.
To round out the solid play of the starters, David West had 13 on 6-11 shooting and nine rebounds, but didn't play an exceptionally strong game. When he was called up on offense, he was there to hit the shot, but some iffy passes and struggling defense in the first half made a lot of his play a wash. West did suffer a minor ankle sprain, but didn't seem to let it deter him. The beauty of West's game, as well as the Pacers' starters, is that even a bit of a clunker by West is still going to be mostly positive. It's difficult to get on West too much, but it's a testament to the team that they've go this back when he's not entirely on his game.
Having the starters perform at a high level is going to be what Indiana needs to succeed this postseason, but they also need some games from the bench, and got it in spades from Tyler Hansbrough, who released his energy in a positive way, scoring nine points and grabbing all five of his boards on the offensive glass. Hansbrough's ability to keep plays alive were monumental in putting the Hawks away in the fourth quarter, as were his two steals.
Gerald Green had 11 off the bench, hitting three threes, but was a mild concern with his shot selection being mostly three-pointers, finishing 3-7 from behind the arc. Green's Game 1 performance is both encouraging and discouraging in hoping that he can provide reliable points off the bench and come up for the team at some point this postseason when they need a little extra push, but also in hoping that he doesn't require too many bad shots to get there.
Frank Vogel tightened up his rotation a bit, moving Orlando Johnson out of the rotation and giving Jeff Pendergraph minutes ahead of Ian Mahinmi. Pendergraph's positive play of late seemed to be the reason for the move of him as the backup center against a smaller Atlanta team, but his five rebounds were about all there was in Pendergraph's night to look back on. It's too soon for the sky falling in Pendergraph's case, but his game was well below his recent output.
Indiana looked closer to the Pacers team that won 49 games this season in their Game 1 victory. There's still room for the defense to pick up; the Hawks finished the night at 50% shooting, but Indiana's domination on the glass and at the free throw line minimized whatever advantage the Hawks might've had in shooting better. There were some signs of improvement in the second half, however, and if those can be built upon, the Pacers will be sitting pretty even if they come up with a game that will be quite ugly.
After an early Sunday afternoon game, the Pacers will get back to a more familiar schedule, tipping Game 2 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday night at 7:30 EDT. You'll be able to catch it on TV on NBA TV and Fox Sports Indiana.