It was ugly. It was awful. It was embarrassing.
It wasn’t remotely surprising.
The Pacers have been spoiled milk for months now. Anyone who thought the could come out and roll over any top-20 NBA was delusional. They struggle to beat anyone most nights these days. Once in awhile, they put forth a full-game of execution like they recently did against the Thunder (or the Heat or Bulls awhile earlier).
Such performances have been few and far between since the All-Star break, however, so the only actual reason to think the Hawks would be cannon fodder was blind (and probably ignorant) faith.
On top of that, the Hawks — with two bigs, in Pero Antic and Paul Millsap, who like to shoot 3s — are a rough matchup. They aren’t a good team, mind you, but they present the exact issues that becoming an out-sized challenge for Indiana, and specifically Roy Hibbert.
That was on full display early, as Atlanta launched 18 first-half triples. They weren’t deadly accurate, but it was enough to keep the paint empty, and Jeff Teague took full advantage, destroying George Hill again and again. Occasionally, Paul George would match up with Teague, and this seemed to be a better look — in two ways, since Hill has more focus running around screens to chase a shooter like Kyle Korver.
But for whatever reason, Hill stayed on Teague most of the time, and it dismantled Indiana’s whole defense throughout the night. Hill deserves plenty of blame so this isn’t an attempt to take him off the hook, but he is also accustomed to corralling speedy penetrators like Teague into his teammates rather than being a toe-to-toe “keep everyone in front of me” defender. This is by design.
When Hibbert and West aren’t in the paint, however, the whole plan must change. Hill didn’t. He defended like he had help behind him.
In addition to the early chess/strategy issues of this series that were fully in play early on, the Pacers actually put together a lovely second quarter.
Lance + bench came out with a bunch of energy and set a tone that helped the whole team snap out of it. Stephenson scored 6 straight, and while he may have gotten overly eager on a few subsequent possessions, the shot of adrenaline he provided stood in stark contrast to the lumbering lethargy that is Roy Hibbert, who was yet again a no-show for his team.
Overall, the Pacers scored 28 points on 10-for-28 shooting in the second quarter. It wasn’t perfect basketball but it was a breath of dragon-breath air after a first quarter that required a buzzer-beating C.J. Watson 3-pointer for Indiana to even eclipse the 20-point mark. (They lost the first quarter only 28-22 on the strength of that make.) It showed that, at their best, they are simply better than Atlanta. This was despite some foul trouble that limited David West’s time on the court (which to be fair started in the first quarter and never ended.)
Unfortunately, the troubling signs from earlier in the game became full-on game-ending problems for Indiana after the half.
The Hawks simply demolished the Pacers out of the break, starting with an 8-0 run that forced Frank Vogel, who had no answers all night and looked like he had never seen the Hawks play before, to take a timeout.
This did little to slow down the Hawks, and Teague who scored 14 in the third, but even worse was the secondary effects it had on everything. Indiana began to look increasingly beleaguered, letting the early run by Atlanta destroy their confidence and prevent them from executing even rudimentary offense.
In the period, Indiana’s starters shot 3-for-13 (23.1%) with Paul George’s 1-for-7 mess doing the most damage. He took bad shots and there was nothing fluid. No good ball movement, no players popping up crisply from down screens, no quality post-ups, no effective drive and kicks. It was stagnant, shell-shocked basketball played by guys who looked like they only met this morning and started going over the playbook at halftime.
The game was over before the fourth quarter started, with a 14-point deficit feeling like 140.
Did I expect the Pacers to find themselves down by as much as 20 to the Hawks at home in game one? I mean, no. But sorta. It came as absolutely no shock, and the awful offense we saw in the third quarter has become so commonplace of late that I did an entire five-part series explaining some of the causes that lead to such impotence.
Before the game, I noted that the Pacers could lose by 30 or win by 50, and that anyone who says they know which way it would go is just selling fake confidence.
This is what these Pacers are. An enigma that, most of the time, isn’t very good.
Luckily, the Hawks are even less good less of the time, on a season-long scale, so the Pacers still have plenty of reasons to think they are still just fine.
I mean, they are in no way fine in the sense that they haven’t been fine in a long, long time. The November and December Pacers are dead and gone, but there remains plenty of talent here, and there’s no reason they can’t win four of the next five against a relatively bad team like Atlanta.
They just need to, ya know, stop being so awful.
(top GIF via @CJzero)
Tags: Indiana Pacers