After sleepwalking through the first six quarters of the playoffs (and the last month of the regular season), the Indiana Pacers snapped out of their extended snooze Tuesday, clobbering the Atlanta Hawks 101-85 in Game 2 to even their first-round series 1-1.
• The Pacers aren't back, but they're at least starting to get up. Let's keep Indiana's blowout Game 2 victory in perspective. Beating a sub-.500 team at home is several hundred miles short of the NBA's mountain top. There's no denying that Indy's 16-point win was a promising sign for a team that resembled a blue-and-gold dumpster fire three days ago, but the Pacers still have plenty of problems to figure out. They trailed by double-digits in the first half once again against Atlanta and didn't start to resemble the team that claimed the East's No. 1 seed until midway through the third quarter.
That's when a month of frustrating, fatigue, fed-up stars and frankly horrible basketball spilled over and swept the Hawks away. Indiana closed the third quarter on a 24-6 run and capped the period with a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Paul George (27 points, 10 rebounds and six assists) that brought a cathartic explosion from Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It was more a celebration of relief than joy. Finally. Indiana had been suffocating in a cloud of losing for over four weeks. Finally, it had a feel-good moment to rally around. Finally, it started to look like the team that was consensus title contender the first four months of the season.
The Pacers went on to outscore the Hawks 55-33 in the second half, cruising to a much-needed win before heading to Atlanta for two games. But Indiana would be foolish to let its guard down now. This is a team that lost 10 of 13 games at one point during March and April and got outplayed by one of the worst No. 8 seeds in NBA history for the first six quarters of this series.
Several issues remain glaring, none more unsightly than the Pacers' 7-foot-2 quandary of a center, Roy Hibbert. Indy seems dead-set on force-feeding Hibbert until he shoots himself out of his slump, something that might not be the wisest strategy.
Hibbert scored just six points and shot 1-of-7 in Game 2. Over his last 15 games, he's shooting only 29.5 percent. That's a startling number for any player, much less one with a significant height advantage that attempts almost 70 percent of his shots from within 10 feet of the hoop.
Game 2 gave Indiana a series-squaring win and a sense of optimism -- but not a solution for every one of its issues accumulated over the last four weeks.
• The Pacers needed Luis Scola. Of course, he was ready. This season has been a tough adjustment for Luis Scola. The 33-year-old power forward has been a starter in the NBA almost his entire career, starred on an Olympic gold-medal squad and been a focal point of pretty much every offense he's ever been a part of. But when Larry Bird traded for the skilled Argentine last summer, he didn't bring Scola in to be a star -- he brought him in to be a bench player. Now, for the first time in Scola's NBA career, he's playing less than 20 minutes per night.
But the commitment from Scola, the consummate pro, has not waned. Watch a Pacers huddle and you'll see Scola running sprints and doing jumping jacks to stay loose. He's the first player off the bench to meet players when a timeout is called and his presence on the floor always brings Indiana energy (although not always defense) whenever Frank Vogel subs him in.
After a season of conserving his energy -- but playing in all 82 games for the fifth time in his seven-year career (remember, the consummate pro thing) -- Scola came out firing against the Hawks. The veteran scored 20 points (9-of-14 shooting) in 19 minutes, adding seven rebounds and giving Indina's offense a lift when it needed one the most.
In his two prior playoff appearances, which came with the Rockets, Scola averaged 14.3 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 47 percent from the field. He's five years older than he was during his postseason trips in Houston, but Game 2 showed he's still just as capable of carrying an offense in spurts when his name is called.
• Indy's defense finally clamps down. The Pacers led the NBA in defensive rating the past two seasons, but they've been hovering around league-average during their recent losing spell. But the team's elite defense began to show itself once again in Game 2, holding Atlanta to 85 points and 39 percent shooting. It was a strong showing for a unit desperately in need of one after seeing its league-leading defensive rating of 96.7 skyrocket to 106.4 in the month of April.
That's a jump that Indiana, in particular, can't afford. Not when the team's offense is also in critical condition and ranks in the bottom-third of the league.
But Game 2 brought a return to respectability for the Pacers' better half. In the final two quarters, Indiana held the Hawks to just 33 points and 29.3 percent shooting. They closed out on shooters, leading Atlanta to make just 2-of-13 three-pointers after hitting 8-of-16 in the first half.
In theory, Indiana should have no trouble defending Atlanta the rest of the series. The league's top defensive unit typically fares well against middling offenses and sub.-500 teams. But a lot of things that make sense about the Pacers haven't been happening of late. Maybe Tuesday will be their eureka moment.
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