ATLANTA — Rarely will anyone in any NBA locker room praise the schedule, regular season or otherwise, as favorable to their cause. Too often the games come either sooner or later than needed.
The Indiana Pacers, however, are going to get exactly what they want after Saturday’s humbling Game 3 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. The quick turnaround for Game 4, Monday night at Philips Arena (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV), provides the ideal platform for this would-be championship caliber team to show us that they are serious about being a contender in the Eastern Conference title chase.
They looked like anything but that Saturday night as the Hawks knocked them down and never let them get up in a 90-69 win that was historically bad for a team that showed up to Atlanta with a chance to take complete control of the series.
“I thought we had a chance to take total control of the series,” Pacers forward and team leader David West said. “But live and learn, I guess. I’m glad we have just one day and not a couple of days to mull it over. I still feel like as long as we keep the turnovers low, the game is much more favorable to us. We just have to be more resolute in everything we do.”
The one glaring advantage from Games 1 and 2, Paul George working against the defense of Kyle Korver at the start of games, changed in Game 3 when Hawks coach Larry Drew adjusted his starting lineup. Johan Petro moved in as the starting center and Josh Smith moved over to small forward, where he could spend his time focusing specifically on George.
The lineup tweak was not the difference, according to Pacers coach Frank Vogel. It was the mindset change of the Hawks and his team’s inability to match that change, that cost them most.
“I thought their disposition was the difference in the game,” Vogel said, “not the different lineup that they played.”
Maybe. But the lineup change meant different looks for Al Horford, too, as he battled West more often than he did Roy Hibbert. HIbbert’s length bothered the Hawks’ big men in the first two games. He wasn’t a factor in Game 3. Horford responded with 26 points and 16 rebounds, both playoff career highs.
“Their big lineup changed up the tempo and style of the game,” said Hibbert, who finished with nine rebounds, eight points and two blocks in 24 minutes of action. “I’ve got to play stronger on both ends and make myself available in the post. Their big lineup makes a difference defensively because they’re longer and they get their hands on more balls.”
The Hawks used all of that to their advantage in Game 3 and are sure to try to duplicate that effort in Game 4. They sensed the Pacers were vulnerable early. They forced them into some uncomfortable positions and then watched as they uncharacteristically fell apart under the pressure (they turned the ball over 22 times).
Vogel is not nearly as worried about the schematic changes as he is about his team’s intestinal fortitude. He’s fostered a “hit first” attitude with his team, a mantra and style that led the Pacers to the No. 3 seed in the East this season. So it only makes sense that his team return to their roots for Game 4, while also cleaning up the slippage in the other areas that were obvious to anyone watching.
“We didn’t bring the necessary sense of urgency [to Game 3],” he said. “Clearly, we had a difficult day offensively. We had difficulty with our screens, setting up, and executing. We had a tough shooting day from the perimeter as well. I think we were emotionally ready, but I think (the Hawks) just played with more desperation than we did. Playing on the road in the playoffs is very different than playing regular season games, very different than playing at home in the playoffs. We’re a very young team … part of growing pains. To feel this, to experience this, we have to grow from these experiences and get better from it.”
They have to do it overnight if they want to regain complete control of this series.