By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Forget the sticks and stones next time. Just go straight to the name-calling. And the bigger the name calling out the Indiana Pacers, the better.
The Eastern Conference No. 1 seed needed a wake-up call, apparently that Game 1 defeat at home to the Atlanta Hawks wasn’t quite enough. Neither was their mediocre, at best, finish to the regular season.
Getting called out by TNT’s Charles Barkley, however, seems to be just what the Pacers needed to find themselves before Tuesday night’s must-win Game 2 effort against the Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
A subtle reminder from the Chuckster that they were embarrassing themselves for the world to see (he called them “wussies”) served as inspiration for a Pacers crew that has tried a little bit of everything to get their groove back. The Pacers reacted and rebounded the way you’d expect the No. 1 seed to after being humbled in Game 1. Their 101-85 drubbing of the Hawks won’t be inconsequential if they continue to handle their business in this series, which resumes Thursday with Game 3 in Atlanta.
Paul George won’t have to answer those awkward questions about his team’s fragile psyche if he keeps working the way he did in Game 2. He’s the one who demanded Frank Vogel allow him to take the challenge of guarding Hawks point guard Jeff Teague. It was his energy, on both ends, that fueled the Pacers’ 31-13 third quarter clubbing that broke the game open.
No offense to Roy Hibbert or Lance Stephenson, but it’ll be George’s sustained play that will guide the Pacers this postseason. Yes, the Pacers will need contributions from all over, yeoman’s work like Luis Scola provided Tuesday night. But your superstars carry you in the playoffs.
George knows as much. He’s never been shy about discussing the lofty aspirations he has for himself and his team. He showed that he was more than capable during the Pacers’ run to the Eastern Conference finals last season. He showed it again Tuesday night, finishing with 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals, infusing the Pacers’ attack with just the right mix of swagger and grit (his barking session with Teague and the entire Hawks bench early set just the right tone).
“That’s why he was in the MVP conversation early,” Vogel said.
George’s 3-point dagger to punctuate the Pacers’ run didn’t hurt either.
“We put our print on this game in the third quarter, which we’ve done in November, December and January basketball,” George said. “We got back to that. I thought we did a great job of really just locking in, coming out in the second half, on what we needed to do.”
His teammates chasing him down after that 3-pointer to end the third quarter was a cathartic celebration, one that validated the Pacers’ return to the frame of mind that George mentioned they had in November, December and January.
“We’re together,” he said. “We’re together. If that’s what it took for everyone to understand how close this team is, that’s what it was. We’ve got each other’s backs. That’s what if felt like … that’s exactly what it felt like.”
That said, George and the Pacers need to be extra careful as the series shifts from their home floor to Atlanta. They still have plenty of work to repair the damage done to their brand since All-Star weekend. They haven’t even crawled completely out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves in this series.
They still have to snatch home-court advantage back from the Hawks and make good on their season-long yapping about the importance of securing that No. 1 seed in the East.
It won’t be easy. The Hawks are well aware of the matchup advantages they own in this series. Teague and Paul Millsap weren’t nearly as devastating as they were in Game 1, much of Teague’s struggles were due to George’s locking in on him on defense, but they’ll no doubt be energized by their home crowd and the huge opportunity that awaits in Game 3.
But even if his teammates are not yet up to the task, George seemed energized. Maybe that fishing trip the other day did wonders for the All-Star swingman. Perhaps getting away from the chaos in that way was just what he needed, and in turn exactly what the struggling Pacers needed.
George is the Pacers’ lone legit star, so he’ll have to carry the heaviest load the rest of the way regardless. As aware as any young star in the league of what needs to be done to become the sort of player he aspires to be, George knows better than anyone that this is a critical phase for the Pacers.
Had they gone down 0-2 to a feisty Hawks team, the “gone fishing” thing would have a completely different context. So that lack of urgency the Pacers exhibited in the first half, when the Hawks seemingly had control of the game, has to end now. There’s no room for that sort of lethargy from a team that claims to be focused on much bigger and better things.
The Pacers must finish this series and continue in these playoffs, by any means necessary, with George taking up whatever assignment needed to get his team back on track. That’s non-negotiable for a team that spent months building a bridge back to the Eastern Conference finals, a bridge that begins and ends on their home floor …
Provided, of course, George can lead them there.