By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — As much as this moment is about Jeff Teague and his improbable shot (and the shrug that followed it), Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll, and the feisty spirit of the worst team (on paper) in the playoffs choking the daylights out of the best team (on paper) in the Eastern Conference, it’s not.
The Atlanta Hawks have to wait to get their due. They won’t get the credit they deserve for dealing what could be a death-blow to the Indiana Pacers’ season and their fading championship dreams because the demise of coach Frank Vogel‘s team is that epic.
Startling doesn’t do the Pacers’ free-fall justice. Not now. Not after you watch them get taken apart the way they did Thursday night in a 98-85 loss at Philips Arena by a Hawks team that didn’t have to play great to beat them. The Hawks did make 10 of their 18 second-half 3-pointers. And they had their way with the Pacers off the dribble, cashing in with 37 free-throw attempts. But they only shot 38 percent and got outrebounded by 10.
And yet, they were still the tougher team when it mattered. They certainly played well enough to shatter whatever is left of the false sense of confidence the Pacers packed for this road trip.
“It feels out of character for us to play this way,” Pacers All-Star Paul George said of his team’s scattered effort. “We can’t get comfortable with this, especially if we have a dream of winning it all. We have to be much tougher than what went on out there tonight. Our toughness in questionable right now, to say the least.”
As much as this series is about the Hawks and their Cinderella story — the only team in the playoffs with a losing record leading the top team in the conference 2-1 as a huge Saturday afternoon Game 4 looms that could push the Pacers over the edge — it’s about the nightmare the Pacers will endure if things continue the way they have for 10 of the 12 quarters these teams have played so far.
This is about Vogel and 7-foot-2 All-Star center Roy Hibbert, the biggest man in the series who has come up the smallest (3-for-16 from the floor the past two games). Vogel tried to say the right things after yet another disappearing act from his center. He proclaimed his confidence in Hibbert. He called him his team’s anchor and said he hadn’t lost faith in him. But he stopped short of saying that Hibbert would be in the starting lineup for Game 4.
“We’ll look at everything,” Vogel said. “Can’t say that right now, but I have confidence in Roy Hibbert. He hasn’t played well to this point, but I do have confidence … we’re not going to quit on him. I know that. We’re going to keep working with him and try and figure it out. We’ll see. He’s our anchor, we won 56 games with him as our starter and that’s the simplest answer.”
Can they win three more with him as the starter in this series? Hibbert has scored a grand total of 18 points (yes, you read that right) in the series and hasn’t recorded a single block. He’s had just one double-digit rebound game in his last 27 outings. That’s not the sort of production any team expects from its highest-paid player.
“We’ve all tried to talk to him and keep him confident,” David West said. “It’s hurting him. He wants to help us and he wants to play well. He’s hard on himself. We’ve got to figure out a way to get him involved. He’s got figure out a way to get himself involved. It’s a long playoff series, so we’re not going to panic. We came down here to get one game and that’s what we’re intending to do.”
Whether or not they’ll do it with Hibbert playing a major role remains to be seen. Ian Mahinmi played the final five minutes and 30 seconds of the third quarter in Hibbert’s place and Luis Scola played the entire fourth quarter as Hibbert sat on the bench.
When pressed one last time about whether or not he’ll keep Hibbert in that first five, Vogel still wouldn’t give a definitive answer.
“We’ll see,” he said, “… probably.”
There isn’t much time to deliberate. Pacers boss Larry Bird was caught on camera with his face buried in his hands during one disastrous possession early on in the game. It’s an appropriate reaction and gesture for the Pacers’ entire body of work since the All-Star break.
A 33-8 record at the halfway point of the season has morphed into pure chaos on and off the floor. They’ve crumbled under the weight of expectations at nearly every turn, every triumph meet with a corresponding hiccup.
Earlier Thursday George admitted that the Pacers had gotten full of themselves after that great start. They foolishly believed their own hype before recognizing that there was another half of the season to be played and that they’d do so as the hunted and not the hunter.
“We were competing with Miami and chasing that No. 1 seed instead of just building habits and focusing on ourselves and becoming a better team,” George said. “I think that’s where we got off track and what led us down this road.”
The road could come to an end much sooner than expected for the Pacers, long before that Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals they hunted for so long.
That’s why as much as this should be about the Hawks and what they’ve accomplished, to this point, it just can’t be … not with the tire fire that the Pacers’ season has become.