For as badly as everything has gone for the Indiana Pacers these last two days on and off the court, they answered the call tonight with an impressive victory over the Atlanta Hawks. It wasn’t particularly close until it was, when Caris LeVert lifted Indiana on his back to close it out in the final 2:30.
One of the more surprising notes in tonight’s win is that Indiana only trailed briefly tonight, at 3-2. But even though they led by as many as 18, their struggles in the fourth quarter still put them right at the doorstep of a familiar collapse. The Hawks cut the lead all the way down to one with three minutes remaining when Trae Young floated up what seemed like a sure thing to Clint Capela at the rim.
Somehow, Capela missed the tip, sending the Pacers the opposite direction. Aaron Holiday quickly found LeVert on an outlet, setting up LeVert to work against Kevin Huerter, coming up with a tough fadeaway attempt that went, giving the Pacers a crucial three point advantage.
The Pacers pieced together another stop, with LeVert again pulling up for a difficult and-one that doubled the lead to six. After a Bogdan Bogdanvoic three, LeVert worked the clock down, freezing and shaking off Huerter again for an ice cold dagger.
LeVert finished with a game high 31 points, scoring to end the half at the buzzer, then piling in 18 after the break, including seven straight late in the third to weather an Atlanta push, keeping the Pacers ahead by double figures. The Pacers led in double figures for much of the night, going ahead for good in the first on a 16-5 run.
They’d go on to score 36 in each of the first two quarters, getting extensive contributions everyone who took the floor. After a loss against Sacramento in which the Pacers were visibly weighed down by not only the outside noise by their own lethargy, they attacked tonight, getting out in transition and building their lead through live ball turnovers.
Domantas Sabonis opened the third with a pair of impressive jumpers, building the lead up to a game high 18 before the Hawks inched back into the game. After cutting it to six, A. Holiday took charge, scoring four an ddishing to Doug McDermott at the basket to put Indiana ahead by 11.
Atlanta’s offense picked up in the third, scoring 38, but it was T.J. McConnell who ensured the Pacers would at least hold serve, scoring and then finding Kelan Martin off of a steal against Young to beat the buzzer for the second straight quarter.
That 14-point lead would prove enough for Indiana to hold on in the fourth despite their best efforts otherwise, getting a feel-good win to snap a three game home losing streak. The Pacers shot 62.1% on the game, assisting on 35 buckets. They had 70 points in the paint, won the rebounding battle ever so slightly, and outscored Atlanta in transition.
LeVert had 12 assists to go with his 31 points, his first Pacers double double. He dished to six different Pacers, nearly half of them going to Sabonis. Sabonis had one of his most impressive games of the season, lifting the Indiana offense throughout the game with 30 points on 12-14 shooting, his best percentage since a February win over Memphis.
In that game, Sabonis did a bulk of his work at the rim. He hit two threes, but every other shot came right around the basket. Tonight, he was fanned out all over the floor, hitting three triples and shooting 4-6 outside of the restricted area, including a pair of fadeaway midrange jumpers.
Six players reached double figures on the night, offering plenty of support for Sabonis and LeVert, led by the point guard rotation. McConnell had 19 points and four steals, shooting 9-12 after hitting his first seven shots. He carved up the Atlanta defense and provided a sanguine boost to some less than stellar defensive stretches by creating turnovers.
A. Holiday meanwhile had 15 points and a pair of steals, shooting 6-9 himself for a rather nice outing. It was one of the more confident showings from Holiday, easily his best in the eight games he’s started this season. He found McDermott a couple of times early as part of his 13 points. Oshae Brissett finished in double figures with 10, pulling in a team high eight rebounds to help the Pacers win the rebounding battle.
The win felt like something of a relief after numerous reports spoke to a fracture between the players and the coaching staff that eventually led to a suspension for assistant coach Greg Foster and a fine for Goga Bitadze after the two sniped at each other in last night’s loss to Sacramento.
Despite the reports, both sides have been nothing but professional in addressing them, continuing to do so after tonight’s win. McConnell said as much tonight, saying that this locker room isn’t one to quit on Nate Bjorkgren. LeVert spoke on blocking out the noise and Bjorkgren looked as relieved as he has in days, saying the win felt good and talking about the need to enjoy moments like it.
Tonight’s win was the first against a winning team since March 26, snapping a six game skid in such games. It also snapped a three game home losing streak, getting them out of the cellar of the Eastern Conference in home record. Though their next opponent isn’t a winning team, it will be a big test for them as they finish the season series against the Washington Wizards on Saturday.
The Wizards, sitting a half game back in 10th, already own the head-to-head over the Pacers, having posted ridiculous numbers against them, including 154 points just three days ago when the reports of dissent began to surface. The injuries will again make it difficult to find consistency in terms of wins and losses, but seeing how Indiana takes the court will go a long way in determining how the rest of the regular season and ensuing play-in game will go.