It’s hard to draw up a better regular season finale for the Indiana Pacers than the one they had tonight against the Atlanta Hawks. With five players resting, including four of the five starters, it was an opportunity for the young guys to shine and they did not disappoint, with career nights and clutch heroics highlighting a thrilling road win.
The pace of the game was lightning quick and defense was optional, giving the Pacers a 109-103 lead after three quarters. Throughout the game, Indiana held a steady lead, but the frenzied pace threw a lot of different wrenches into the game, keeping them from putting a stamp on the game.
Atlanta used a 16-5 run in the middle of the fourth quarter to take their first lead of the second half, setting up a thrilling finish featuring seven lead changes in the final three minutes. Again, it was the young guys leading them down the stretch. T.J. Leaf had a career high night of 28 points and 10 rebounds, scoring his final four of the game to give the Pacers a 130-129 lead with a minute left.
The other player carrying the Pacers down the stretch was Edmond Sumner. Sumner had eight of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, including Indiana’s final five. He would push Indiana back into the lead on a clutch jumper with 36 seconds left. Unfortunately, after both teams failed to score, Atlanta drew up a great inbounds to Taurean Prince, who hit a big time three to push the Hawks ahead 134-132 with two seconds left.
After calling their final timeout, Sumner received the ball in the corner, rising for a three, double clutching to avoid a DeAndre’ Bembry block, and getting bowled over by the aforementioned Bembry with 0.3 seconds left to send him to the line for three. The foul, and the ensuing trip to the line, was reminiscent of Kyle Guy’s heroics in the Final Four, when the Lawrence Central product was fouled, hitting all three of his free throws to lead Virginia to the National Championship Game.
The stakes may not have been quite the same, but the result was. Sumner looked unflappable at the line, hitting the first two and then shaking off a lengthy Hawks substitution to make the third. His teammates were ecstatic with the 135-134 victory.
Like a high scoring football game, tonight’s win came in large part due to the defensive plays the Pacers made as opposed to the countless defensive plays they didn’t. They forced the Hawks into 17 turnovers, helping them to outscore Atlanta 25-10 in points off turnovers. Leaf was one of four Pacers with multiple steals, including a pick six interception with just under three minutes in the fourth that kickstarted the frenzied back-and-forth to close out the win.
The ability to force turnovers was big as well as they were thoroughly beaten on the glass. The Hawks outrebounded the Pacers by 18, allowing 22 offensive rebounds, which set up a wild 20 point, 25 rebound night from John Collins. Leaf and Alize Johnson did show a lot of rebounding prowess, however. They combined for 21 rebounds with Johnson making whatever rebounding highlight reel is out there and Leaf showing his instincts on the glass with five offensive boards.
Tyreke Evans also had a big night, scoring 27 points in a starting role. The nature of the game really allowed Evans to play freely, setting up him for a solid night shooting at 9-14 with five threes, but also in leading the team with five assists. Assists weren’t common in this particular game, with he and Darren Collison totaling nine of Indiana’s 22 on the night.
Collison played in the first half and looked to be much more in tune with the game than he was in the loss to Brooklyn. He played the first nine and a half minutes without looking completely gassed, even chasing down a loose ball and saving it for an early layup. Davon Reed closed out the game in his 23 minutes, finishing with seven points.
There were a lot of really unusual sights in the box score, especially in regards to the Pacers, but this game marked the first time all season both teams had at least 98 field goal attempts and 38 free throws in a game. The two teams combined for 201 shot attempts, but also took a combined 77 free throw attempts, helping to bring the game clock to a glacial pace.
With the end of the regular season, the Pacers match their record of 48-34 from last year, getting there this year despite missing Victor Oladipo for a total of 46 games. Though tonight’s win came with mostly bench players who will be out of the playoff rotation, hopefully the team as a whole found something in the win tonight after a pair of lackluster performances leading up to this game.
At the very least, bringing the kind of energy Wesley Matthews and Myles Turner showed in the post-game interview with Sumner alone will go a long way in giving Indiana a definitive advantage in terms of effort in their playoff series with Boston.
The Pacers will return to action this weekend when they travel to Boston to face the Celtics in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Game 1 will be either Saturday or Sunday and will be a big test for the Pacers if they hope to start the postseason 1-0 on the road for the third time in the last four years.