Facing a potentially crippling situation early in the third quarter against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night, the Indiana Pacers got back to what earned them the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Trailing by as many as 11 in the first half at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers pulled away from the Hawks with a suffocating defensive effort over the final 20 minutes.
It all started when Paul George dove on the floor to chase a loose ball alongside Paul Millsap. Atlanta won the subsequent jump ball, but Jeff Teague missed a jumper and Lance Stephenson took off in search of early offense. Stephenson converted a reverse layup and was fouled, giving Indiana a 62-59 lead. They never turned back.
After playing hesitantly through the first six quarters of the series, the Pacers put the Hawks on their heels during a decisive second-half run that led to a blowout 101-85 victory.
Indiana went small and contained Jeff Teague, who had been burning them on penetration off pick-and-rolls with Pero Antic and Millsap. Teague had 12 points in the first half after a dazzling performance in Game 1 on Saturday night, but was held to just two points on 1-for-5 shooting after the break.
George Hill, the quietest of Indiana's five starters, was huge in the third. He scored 10 points and helped key a 31-13 edge in the period and a 19-0 run that stretched into the fourth quarter. During the run, the Hawks went more than six minutes without scoring.
The Pacers dominated defensively even with Roy Hibbert cheering on the sidelines. After forcing the ball inside to their center on offense, Frank Vogel adjusted to the opponent and gave Ian Mahinmi and Luis Scola heavy minutes in the second half. Mahinmi isn't Hibbert on the defensive end, but the Pacers have molded him into a similar defender in their system. He did a fine job protecting the rim as Atlanta looked flummoxed. Scola was a huge offensive weapon, putting up 20 points on 9-for-14 shooting.
Not surprisingly, great defense led to easy offense.
With the Hawks going 5-for-20, including 1-for-8 from deep, in the third, the Pacers attacked the basket and carried confidence to the other end of the floor. Indiana went 12-for-16 in the quarter, while building a +4 rebounding edge and cashing in on all their trips to the foul line.
This performance alone doesn't mean the "old" Indiana Pacers are back, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.
When the Pacers needed their best player to put them on his back, Paul George did just that. He was a game-high +29 with a full stat line -- 27 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and four steals. More importantly? He committed just one turnover and didn't force his offense as he has so often post-All-Star break.
George took seven threes, making five of them, and attacked the basket rather than settle for mid-range jumpers. He took two such shots, with his remaining seven attempts coming in, or near, the restricted area.
His performance was also noteworthy on the defensive end as he spent some time checking Teague. His length and quickness create problems for any point guard.
Hibbert may be the "face" of Indiana's league-best defense, but on Tuesday night they put together a team performance that bodes well for the remainder of the series. The All-Star center played 24 minutes, six fewer than in the series opener, as Vogel went with a smaller, more athletic front-line to counter Atlanta's unorthodox attack.
There is no question that Hibbert has been vital to Indiana's success, but there is also no rule that says you have to stick with a specialized player when mismatched. The Pacers are looking to get back on track and enter the title conversation again, not to march out Hibbert because of his contract and label as a starter.
Vogel forced offense inside to Hibbert far too much in the first half and when the big man focused more on rebounding and defense than trying to score over the smaller Millsap and Antic, the Pacers looked more like the team that had the best record in the league at the season's midpoint. A combined 14 points and 12 rebounds without a single block in 54 minutes is disappointing, but if Indiana advances Hibbert will have plenty of chances to dominate on both ends.
The Hawks couldn't recover when the Pacers imposed their will in the second half, but over a stretch from the end of the first to the beginning of the second quarter Atlanta's offense absolutely handcuffed Indiana.
Even when the Pacers are dialed in defensively, it's hard to stop the Hawks when they are hitting on all cylinders. If Teague and Lou Williams are slashing and Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll and Co. are hitting from deep it's difficult for any team to defend them.
Parties Not Heard From
Stephenson ignited the Pacers in the third quarter with his three-point play, but he and David West were largely unheard from in Game 2. West battled foul trouble early and finished with eight points and two rebounds. His passing helped Indiana foster better ball movement -- he had six assists -- but a huge outing is lurking as the series shifts to Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Stephenson found himself on the bench more than he'd like and we've come to expect. He logged just 25 minutes, his lowest total since the Pacers beat the Hawks 89-85 on Feb. 4. He wasn't Bad Lance, but the triple-double machine had just seven points, five assists and three rebounds and was a +3 in a 16-point win. It will be interesting to see how Stephenson comes out on Thursday night.