The Indiana Pacers squandered a great opportunity to get back on track tonight with a sluggish 98-85 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta tonight, falling behind 1-2 in their first round series. Game 4 will be in Atlanta on Saturday and it’s another must-win to avoid going back to Indy facing elimination.
The Pacers must be frustrated (more on that later) but they can look to the positives. Paul George picked up two fouls in the first 3 minutes and didn’t score in the first half, finishing with just 12 points on 3-11 shooting. Roy Hibbert laid another egg (he’s been an egg farm as of late) — 4 points, 2 rebounds, 2-9 shooting — and didn’t play in the 4th quarter. George Hill was 1-11 from the field. They shot 37.6% from the field as a team and were dominated 37-21 in free throw attempts. And they were right in the game until the last minute or so.
The Pacers will also lament two big momentum swinging calls in the fourth quarter that completely changed the tone of the game. The first happened with just under 8 minutes to go, when the Pacers had gone on a 7-0 run to trim the lead to 4. Lance Stephenson gets huge steal but loses the handle on the Pacers’ baseline, and the refs say the ball went out of bounds. Replays show it didn’t. Instead, the Hawks get the ball and Kyle Korver would get fouled on the ensuing play while making a three, and the four-point play pushed the lead back up to 8.
The second call was arguably even bigger. The Pacers had momentum again after a cutting the lead back down to 6 with 3 minutes remaining. The Hawks were about to commit a shot clock violation but Teague makes a miraculous buzzer-beating three-pointer over Luis Scola to push the lead to 9. The refs later reviewed the play to see if he was outside the three-point line. Well, he was, but he was also outside the sideline. Unfortunately, it was too late to make that call, so the basket counted.
That’s why I think the NBA needs to introduce a challenge system like in tennis. These calls in the game are huge, and it’s frustrating when everyone, including the refs, know they made a mistake but can’t overturn the outcome. It doesn’t have to be a lot of challenges, maybe two each per half (and like tennis, you don’t lose them if you’re right), but they can make all the difference.
Still, the Pacers had their chances to win the game but didn’t deliver. There are still problems at both ends of the floor, but the two things sticking out like dogs balls to me are:
1. Lack of movement. A lot of standing around on offense and players not moving until the ball is in their hands. A few basic pick-and-roll screens here and there, but if they don’t work out nobody knows what to do, and it usually ends in a contested iso jumper with the shot clock winding down.
2. Mistimed catches. I lost count of the number of times the Pacers would have had a great open look at the basket but made passes that were just a little off, a little too low, a little mistimed. And the half-second fumble that ensued usually forced the catcher to give up the shot or allowed the Hawks defenders to swarm in. In a few cases it led to unforced turnovers.
If the Pacers can clean those things up, and just stop fouling, then they have a good shot at winning game 4, and if they do that, they should be confident they can win the series. Frank Vogel discovered tonight their most effective lineup, which is CJ Watson, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Luis Scola. This small-ball lineup was the most efficient offensively and gave up surprisingly little defensively. Mahinmi played decent tonight so he could spot Scola and West, and I don’t mind seeing Lavoy Allen or Chris Copeland getting some action at the four to stretch the floor.
Just about everyone has given up on Hibbert, and even though Vogel said “we’ll look at everything” straight after the game, he also confirmed that Hibbert will “probably” start game four. Maybe he’s hoping Hibbert will get his confidence back and play better later on in the playoffs, which they will need against Washington/Chicago and especially Miami, but if he keeps sticking with Hibbert the Pacers likely won’t make the second round. My guess is Vogel will start Hibbert, give him a couple of minutes, and if it doesn’t pay immediate dividends then go with the more effective small-ball lineup. Scola had 17 tonight after a solid game two and West had 17, 6 and 5, so there’s no reason not to go back to them.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and if rumors that Vogel is coaching for his job here (ie, he’ll be fired if the Pacers don’t make it past the first round, or even the second round), then he better do something drastic. It’s beyond the time to care about Hibbert’s fragile ego. Wins are all that count right now.
PS: I’m just going to dump on Hibbert a little more here. He was just horrible tonight. Missing close-range hooks. Tossing up long jumpers (one luckily banked in). Fumbling passes. There was one play when Evan Turner gave him a great pass under the basket and all the wide open Hibbert had to do was catch and dunk. Instead? He fumbled it out of bounds. Inexplicable how hands that big can’t catch a damn ball.
PPS: Crazy that the Pacers, even down 1-2, are not in that bad of a predicament compared to the Bulls and Rockets, who are both down 0-2 despite having had home court advantage. It’s turning out to be a very competitive first round all across the board, with only Miami-Charlotte looking like a probably sweep because Al Jefferson only has one leg right now.