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George Stars, Pacers Reappear To Advance Past Hawks

It took the Indiana Pacers more than four minutes to get on the board in Game 7 on Saturday night, but their first basket was a good omen.

Roy Hibbert, savaged in the media and on Twitter throughout a horrendous series, scored eight of Indiana's first 16 points to help steady an offense that looked shaky early on. Hibbert finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in 31 minutes. He had 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks combined in his previous four games.

Maybe it was Hibbert's effectiveness. Maybe it was the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Maybe it was the 16-4 run they used to win Game 6 at Philips Arena on Thursday night. Whatever is was -- something woke up the Pacers against the Atlanta Hawks with a date in the semifinals against the Washington Wizards on the line.

The Pacers were the aggressors on only a few occasions through the first six games, but looked engaged for almost the full 48 with their season on the line once again. They had their best defensive performance of the playoffs, allowing only a few open threes to a team that set a postseason record for attempts. They went 11-for-44 in Game 7.

Indiana pounded Atlanta on the glass (55-38) and their aggressiveness on both sides of the ball frustrated the Hawks. The Pacers finally imposed their will, earning an important 29-16 edge in free throw attempts.

The final score, 92-80, wasn't really indicative of how the game was played. Indiana dominated so many moments that it felt like more than a 12-point win, but there is an argument to be made in the other direction. The Hawks shot 25% from three, but seemed to make a few in a row whenever the Pacers flirted with a blowout, always staying within striking distance.

It isn't surprising that, in addition to Atlanta's threes, turnovers kept the Pacers from truly pulling away. They had 18 miscues, but the Hawks rarely took advantage on the ensuing possession. The Hawks had 15 offensive rebounds, including 10 from Paul Millsap, but those came on 64 missed shots.

Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill played great perimeter defense, rotating well and getting out to shooters consistently. That allowed David West and Hibbert to guard the paint. The duo also protected the rim and altered numerous shots. West, Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi combined to block 13 shots. One of those rejections helped swing the momentum towards the home team heading into halftime.

Jeff Teague, who hurt the Pacers with his speed over the two-week battle, had 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting in the first half. He had a shot at the rim emphatically blocked by Mahinmi as time expired in the second quarter. From that point forward, the Indianapolis native had just six points (1-for-8), two assists, two turnovers and three fouls.

The Pacers can only enjoy a collective sigh of relief for a few moments. The Wizards are much more talented than the Hawks and aren't short on confidence. Washington doesn't pose the same crippling matchup issues that Atlanta did, but the kind of performance we saw from the Pacers over the course of these last seven games simply won't get it done in the next round.

If Indiana wants to make their detractors forget about the first round, they'll have to play like they did on Saturday night for the entire Washington series.

PG 24

His efforts were largely overshadowed by his team's struggles, but Paul George had a tremendous series against the Hawks. He averaged 23.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.4 steals on 45.8% shooting and posted a double-double in six of the seven contests.

George, who turned 24 on Friday, saved the best for last with 30 points and 11 rebounds in the deciding game. He only made one of his eight three-point attempts, but was 10-for-15 from the rest of the field. He seemed to answer with a jumper every time the Hawks made a mini-run.

Vogel Is Rewarded

Frank Vogel said after the win that he was "feeling" for Roy Hibbert, who has become like a member of his family in recent years. While the coach flirted with disaster by sticking with the big man too long throughout a majority of the series, he was rewarded with a strong effort in the most important game of the season.

It's no secret that Hibbert can be fragile. He saw a sports physiologist early in his career and always seems to play at his best when he is most confident. The Pacers even publicly admitted that they felt Hibbert cared too much when he was at his lowest against the Hawks.

For Vogel and Hibbert, what transpired in the final game of the series was a small reward for loyalty.

Hibbert's 13 points were his most since March 31 and his five blocks his highest total since he turned away the same number on March 28. The performance wasn't dominant by any stretch, but it could go a long way towards boosting Hibbert's confidence. He tied with George for the best +/- (16) in the game. 

Millsap Produces Inefficiently

Look quickly and Paul Millsap had a very good night -- 15 points and 17 rebounds. He was Atlanta's best player, but didn't truly get going until the third quarter.

Millsap entered halftime with two points and five boards. He missed his first nine shots before getting on track late. He went 6-for-12 in the second half and ended up with nine points and eight rebounds in the third alone.  

He was a beast on the glass against the taller Pacers as his teammates grabbed just 21 rebounds, but he missed all five of his attempts from deep and needed 21 shots to reach 15 points.

Pacers Wake Up Late, Use Run To Force Game 7 Against Hawks

Jeff Teague hit a jumper with 3:16 left in the fourth quarter to give the Atlanta Hawks a 74-69 lead over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night. The shot gave Teague, who glared over at the Pacers heading into the timeout, 29 points and seemed to put a bow on a surprising series.

Coming out of the timeout, George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Ian Mahinmi walked onto the floor with the season slipping away. Forget about another lengthy playoff run, forget about a chance at redemption against the Miami Heat, the Pacers were less than four minutes away from losing Game 6 at Philips Arena and joining the short list of No. 1 seeds that have been upended by their eighth-seeded opponents.

It remains to be seen if the Pacers have finally woken up from a two-month slumber, but something significant changed after Teague drained that jumper. To put it simply, West decided that this team would live to play at least one more game.

The Pacers went on a 16-4 run over the final 3:16, an amazing run with an offensive explosion and strong defensive stand, en route to a 95-88 win.

West had eight points over the stretch, making three of his four shots and both his free throws. The veteran hasn't had the best series -- he had a combined 16 points and 10 rebounds in the first two games -- but took the game over when his teammates needed him most. He finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and two steals. He attempted a team-high 20 shots.

A few ill-advised jumpers aside, George, who will turn 24 years old between games, was excellent as well. He had 24 points and eight rebounds on 7-for-18 shooting.  He made four straight foul shots in the final 33.8 seconds to seal the victory.

After Teague's jumper, the Hawks went 1-for-6 from the field and committed two turnovers. The Pacers punched back, no pun intended after the second-quarter scuffle between Hill and Mike Scott, and the Hawks were unable to answer.

With Game 7 looming at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday, there isn't an outcome that doesn't seem conceivable.

Vogel Adjusts … Sort Of

Frank Vogel finally coached to his opponent in the win ... to a degree. Vogel pulled Roy Hibbert, who has had a historically bad postseason, with 5:26 left in the first quarter. Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson were the first players off the bench, while Evan Turner never played and Luis Scola was only active for the final 12.4 seconds.

The Hawks led 14-5 when Hibbert went to the bench and Indiana was 2-for-9 from the floor with two turnovers. The two-time All-Star remained on the sidelines for the remainder of the half and the Pacers responded accordingly. They led (44-39) at halftime for the first time in the series and shot 15-for-27 (55.6%) over the final 17-plus minutes. The offensive spacing improved immediately with the smaller lineup, essentially Copeland for Hibbert, leading to better looks for George and others. Copeland wasn't a revelation (five points, three rebounds, three fouls and three turnovers in 18:28) but his presence on the floor changed how Atlanta defended. 

Vogel seemed to concede that Hibbert simply wasn't the best option when he sent Mahinmi out to begin the third quarter, but then Mike Scott happened.

Scott, who was on fire from deep in Game 5 and shoved Hill in the face in the second quarter, posterized Mahinmi at the 3:22 mark of the third. The slam sent the Hawks off on a 9-2 run that tied the game at 61 less than two minutes later. The combination of Scott's rim-rattling dunk and Mahinmi picking up his fourth foul led Vogel to send Hibbert back out.

The Hawks proceeded to score the final four points of the quarter, grabbing a three-point lead. Hibbert Time over, right? Nope. He played another five minutes, blocking a shot and collecting two rebounds, but also embarrassing himself by getting spun around by Teague and fronted defensively by Lou Williams. It wasn't his fault, but Hibbert's teammates also struggled to even get him the ball in the post. Atlanta led 74-73 when Copeland replaced Hibbert for the final time with 7:01 left in the game.

The clubs then traded baskets before Teague made shots on back-to-back possessions, bringing us to the point at which West took the game over with 3:16 left.

Hibbert finished -12 in a seven-point win. He actually played 12 more seconds than he did in Indiana's Game 5 loss. I'm fine with Vogel ceremoniously starting Hibbert and trotting him out for a few minutes, but he flirted with disaster in the fourth quarter. He'll have to be more careful on Saturday in Game 7.

Strong Fourth Quarter

The first eight-plus minutes weren't all that impressive, but the Pacers matched their best offensive quarter of the series in the fourth. They scored 31 points, equaled only by the third quarter of Game 2 when they went on a run that also ultimately decided the game.

Here is a snapshot of the numbers Indiana enjoyed in the two quarters:

April 22, Third Quarter, Game 2: 12/16 FGs, 5/5 FTs, 4 TOs, 1.396 points per poss.

May 1, Fourth Quarter, Game 6: 9/18 FGs, 12/12 FTs, 3 TOs, 1.332 points per poss.

You Can Never Have Enough Tall Shooters

There are a million different reasons for the slow motion collapse of the Indiana Pacers over the last few months, but the heart of their problem against the Atlanta Hawks is simple enough - spacing. The Hawks, despite being far less talented, do a much better job of spacing the floor than the Pacers, which has allowed them to take a stunning 3-2 lead in their first-round series. Atlanta plays more guys who shoot 3’s, so they have an easier time getting open shots.

The low point for Indiana came in the second quarter of Game 5, when they were outscored 41-19. Leading the charge for the Hawks was Mike Scott, a second-year 6’8 240 power forward out of Virginia. Scott, who was drafted in the second round in 2012, went 6-6 from the field in the quarter, including 5 three pointers. Luis Scola, whom the Pacers acquired for a first-round pick, Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green, couldn’t stay attached to him on the perimeter. 

Indiana’s No. 1 rated defense is built around packing the paint and preventing opposing teams from getting any open looks at the rim. They are one of the biggest teams in the NBA, with a 7’2 Goliath standing in front of the rim next to another 6’9 bruiser and three of the longest and most athletic perimeter players in the NBA in front of them. They were built to beat the Miami Heat, a team full of slashers, but they have no answer for an Atlanta offense that plays five out.

Hibbert has been rendered completely ineffective in this series, forced to defend Pero Antic 25+ feet from the basket and unable to get back to protect the rim. The Hawks top three big men - Antic, Scott and Paul Millsapp - can all step out and shoot three pointers, forcing the Pacers big men to defend out on the perimeter. As a result, the Atlanta guards can operate in a ton of space, with a ton of driving lanes to attack the paint or drive and kick for an open 3.

On the other side of the floor, Indiana hasn’t been able to get enough floor spacing for Paul George and Lance Stephenson to take advantage of their 1-on-1 ability. None of the Pacers top three big men - Hibbert, Scola and David West - can consistently shoot 3’s, so the Atlanta big men can pack the paint and stagnate the Indiana offense. In the first four games, Indiana tried to pound the ball inside and take advantage of their size, but they weren’t efficient enough to make it work. 

It’s simple geometry. The Hawks' five out offense forces the Pacers to defend the entire length and width of the floor, while the Pacers two post offense allows the Hawks to clog the paint. All of Indiana’s size and talent has been negated by Atlanta’s numbers advantage. There’s no question that the Pacers are the better team, but in the crucible of a seven-game series, with their offense ground to a halt and Hibbert rendered ineffective, they have to change things up.

They were able to get back into Game 5 by downsizing and going small, moving West to center and bringing in Chris Copeland off the bench. Copeland, a 6’8 235 stretch 4, hasn’t played much all season and was only 2-7 from the field on Monday, but his presence changed the game completely. He was +17 in his 20 minutes on the floor - all of a sudden, Indiana had a guy who opened up driving lanes for their guards and was able to stick with Scott on the perimeter. 

Neither Scott nor Copeland has the pedigree or statistics of a big-time player, but they have become two of the most important players in the series. While Scott was a second round draft pick and Copeland had to bounce around Europe for years before getting a shot at the NBA, their skill-set - the ability to stand behind a post player on defense and shoot 3’s on offense - is invaluable to their teams. Every team in the NBA needs at least one stretch 4 on their bench. 

We’ve seen that on the other side of the bracket as well. The Golden State Warriors went small in Game 4, moving Draymond Green into the starting line-up and blowing the Los Angeles Clippers off the floor. Green, at 6’7 240, has just enough size to not be destroyed by Blake Griffin and his ability to shoot 3’s and put the ball on the floor put the Clippers defense in a bind. Playing in so much space allowed Steph Curry to go off, with 5 three pointers in the first quarter. 

When Green got into foul trouble in the first half of Game 5, the Warriors were much more effective with Harrison Barnes at the 4 than Marreese Speights. In the second half, the Clippers were eventually forced to go small too, at least when DeAndre Jordan was on the bench. Rather than playing Glen Davis, a big-bodied bruiser who can’t shoot 3’s, Doc Rivers moved Matt Barnes to the power forward position and played Griffin as the Clippers backup center.

Adding more shooting is one of the easiest adjustments a coach can make in a playoff series. By the third or fourth game, the other team knows your plays as well as their own, so it becomes increasingly harder to execute in the half-court. You can either turn up the defensive pressure, force TO’s and play more in transition or you can stretch out the defense with more frontcourt shooting. Either way, the goal is for the offense to play in as much space as possible.

The good news is stretch 4’s aren’t that hard to find - Scott and Green were second-round picks that any team in the NBA could have picked up. Their lack of ideal size for the position caused them to slip in the draft, but their skill-set is so valuable that their flaws can be overlooked, especially on a second unit. They may not have the brand name value of a player like Scola or Davis, but the undersized stretch 4 has proven to be more valuable than the conventional 4.

One player in this year’s draft who fits that mold is Oregon senior Mike Moser, a 6’8 230 power forward who shot 38% from three as a senior. Once considered a first-round pick at UNLV, injuries and a transfer have caused Moser’s stock to plummet. He doesn’t have the physical talent of many of the power forwards ahead of him on draft boards, but his skill-set could help teams. If this playoffs have shown anything, it’s that you can never have enough tall shooters.

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