Hard to believe it looking back, but at one point the scene at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday night could be described as the home court advantage the Pacers had hoped for all season long. Entering the night tied at 2-2 with the Atlanta Hawks, the Indiana Pacers had two of the final three games of the series on the same domain that they had defended better than any other team in the NBA in 2013-14. This was the very type of situation that the Indiana Pacers emphatically pushed towards too all season long, fighting for the number-one seed all the way to the wire of the 82-game obstacle course that is the pro basketball season.
Once the blue and gold’s franchise-player in Paul George hit a three to put the team up in a 21-20 first quarter, a 12-minute span that looked like George (26 points, 12 rebounds) by all means was the best player on the court, it looked as if Indiana had controlled the opening quarter for the first time all series long. But three numbers completely changed the positive vibe the Pacers had going into the second quarter, all three of them spelling out the doom that could have them eliminated from the NBA playoffs in the next forty-eight minutes of basketball. The first being 81.3%, as in the 81.3% the Atlanta Hawks shot in the second quarter on 13-16 shooting. The second number being five, as in the five three pointers that reserve Mike Scott hit off the bench in the second quarter. And the third being 41, as the 41 points the Atlanta Hawks scored in the second 12-minute period, the one that put Atlanta up 61-40 and ultimately led the Hawks to a 107-97 victory.
“We got to play the game,” said Pacers forward David West after the loss, who was shaking his head emphatically despite a 16 point, 7 rebound, and 7 assist performance. “We have to be ready to play. For whatever reason, that second quarter, it just killed us. It burned us. (Mike) Scott just comes out and goes crazy, and we got to be able to make better adjustment. The guys on the floor, when a guy hits one or two of them, you have to stay a little bit closer. You have to get to them. We just didn’t respond.”
In Monday night’s second quarter, in which the Hawks went 9-11 from behind the three-point line while silencing a raucous sellout crowd of 18,165 fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the process, Atlanta looked as if they were tossing basketballs into an ocean rather than a hoop. It all started with unconscious play of Mike Scott, a power forward that hit all six of his shots in the second, five of them coming from behind the arc. By time Scott hit his fifth three with 5:32 left to go in the half, the Hawks had already jumped out to a 48-27 lead.
(Mike Scott’s shot chart, courtesty of NBA.com)
“It’s tough,” said Pacers point guard George Hill on the performance that Scott had. “He came in with some nice pick-and-roll offense, and he got free. Once a guy gets hot, it is hard to stop him. I think we were getting back to him, and he was taking contested jump shots, but he was making them.”
And while Scott will be the one best remembered for his lights-out performance in which he scored all his points in a short 12-minute window, former Butler University star Shelvin Mack turned in arguably the best performance of his career over the entire game. While Pike graduate and soon to be known as Pacers’ fans No. 1 enemy Jeff Teague had an average 12 point, 4 assist contest, it was Mack who led the Hawks with a team-high 20 points and 5 assists that kept the team on cruise-control to victory. Mack was part of a Hawks bench that managed to outscore the Pacers bench 34-2 in the opening 24 minutes.
Atlanta’s starters then did their part of the abuse on the Pacers defense, with 16 points (5-10 from 3P FG) from Kyle Korver and a combined 33 points from DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap, built that lead to 80-50 with 7:26 left in the third quarter. It was the third time in the last four games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that the Atlanta Hawks had build a 20-plus point deficit, and the second time they had reached the 30-point mark in eventual victories.
“We’re playing a team that is playing a style of play that is capable of doing what they did tonight,” said Pacers head coach Frank Vogel, who said to give the Hawks plenty of credit for their night on offense. “Since April 6th we have known that. We have great respect for this opponent. They’re testing us and we have to respond.”
The game did have some positive moments for the Pacers, who managed to outscore Atlanta in the first (21-20), third (27-26), and fourth (30-20) quarters to ultimately cut the loss down to ten points. There were points in the fourth quarter where the team, and the fans that furiously rooted for them despite the impossible obstacle laid before them, rallied back to make it feel as if the Pacers had made this a game ultimately in the end. In fact, even though the Pacers swatted away the idea of moral victories when the team is 48 minutes from the worst loss by a one-seed in the first round in NBA history, the locker room seemed content with the idea that they went down fighting in the end. But as Lance Stephenson (16 points, 7 rebounds) pointed out, that wasn’t nearly enough.
“We’re supposed to come out punching them and making it hard for them,” said Stephenson, who looked in disbelief that his team could be on the brink of elimination. “Every time we hit, they responded, and it was just too late.”
Now Indiana heads to Atlanta on Thursday night for game six, and will play at the Philips Arena that has become a house of horrors for the blue and gold. And after a game that seems to be leaving Indiana with even more questions that answers, ranging from what to do with center Roy Hibbert following an 0-4 performance (Roy’s stat-line: zero points, four fouls, one assist, turnover, and blocked shot) and how to slow down the Atlanta Hawks from shooting with such accuracy from behind the arc, it will be interesting to see how this Indiana squad plays with their season ultimately on the line.
“We got to control the game, we got to control the pace,” said David West. “We have to get out to them on the perimeter, with far more emphasis than we did tonight.”