Atlanta Hawks players, lift one hand over your heads, fingers extended! Now, bend at the elbow and drop your hand behind your neck. Got it? Okay, press your palm repeatedly against your back. Did it? Good! Thus ends the praise you’ll get for 86’ing the 76ers on Wednesday night.
Yes, you made a little socialist NBA history by dispatching the Keystone State Kopz with nary a Hawk getting to 14 points on the day. “Feel the Bern!”, and whatnot. Active hands (13 steals), active hips (40+ D-Rebs for the second-straight game, six Philly O-Rebs), and active heads (28 assists) all made the difference in a 38-point washout.
There’s no time to dwell on it, though. The team that crop-dusted you this past week, the Indiana Pacers, are on the docket. Actually, they’re here, at the Highlight Factory (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM, Fox Sports Indiana, ESPN), and rarin’ to go before a national prime-time audience.
A couple hours north of Philly, the Pacers withstood a second-half rally from Joe Johnson’s Nets before pulling off their third win in four games. Despite the momentary prosperity, and despite having just zipped past the Hawks in their own building, Indiana (26-23) sits precariously in the East’s 7th-seed spot, with Detroit (who they’ll host tomorrow) and Charlotte beginning to make a charge. Thus sets up another prime opportunity for Atlanta (29-22).
Not only can the Hawks bounce back from the 111-92 defeat at the Fieldhouse last week, featuring a decisive 23-2 closing run by the hosts, but they can further submerge a conference threat that’s now in the throes of yet another identity crisis.
Danny Granger was Mister Pacer during the post-Malice, Jim O’Brien era, peaking in 2009 with his one All-Star appearance and a Most Improved Player nod. But by the time the Pacers cobbled together a team capable of pushing for the Eastern Conference crown, under Frank Vogel, it was time for Granger to leave center stage. This Paul George kid seemed to have the talent to be the franchise face, so why wait?
Those sentiments proved accurate when, by 2013, it was George winning the MIP as the oft-injured Granger took a backseat. By 2014, George led the charge to the top of the East standings with 56 wins and a trip to the conference finals. Paul George had indeed become Mister Pacer.
Now one unfortunate offseason injury and one-and-a-half seasons later, the Pacers are possibly at another crossroads. George’s bounceback in November certainly justified the All-Star love he received from voters. But despite a career-high 23.1 PPG it’s clear that, at least offensively, George is struggling.
The increased shot volume from deep (7.2 3FGAs per game) isn’t enough to explain PG13’s overall struggles with his jumper (career-low 40.8 FG%, 37.2% on 2-point jumpshots). A much more prolific scorer throughout his career, Danny Granger was shooting 41.6% from the floor in 2012 when it was becoming clear the high-usage should be transferred to someone else. George’s usage percentage has risen to a career-high 30.3%, even with more offensive-minded talents like Monta Ellis and C.J. Miles, and a solid 3-and-D point guard in George Hill, at his side.
Tack on a turnover ratio (13.0 per 100 possessions) that’s sixth-highest among players with 30+ minutes per game (13.5 per 100 since December 1, highest in NBA), and you can see that for some Pacer fans, the honeymoon is just about over. And they may have a future franchise-face waiting in the wings.
The Pacers just missed the playoffs on the last game of the season, but their reward was lotto-rookie Myles Turner (16.6 PPG, 54.2 FG%, 2.9 BPG in last 9 games; 20 points on 9-for-17 FGs vs. ATL on Jan. 28) has lately been deemed the most fortunate thing to happen in Naptown sports since Andrew Luck showed up on the scene. The immense potential shows in the big man’s sweet mid-range jumper and his ability to be active on the glass.
That was on display in his third-ever start against the Fightin’ T-Lues on Monday. Turner snatched six offensive rebounds against the Cavs, and one of his four blocks pinned what would have otherwise been another highlight-reel dunk by Cleveland’s GM, LeBron James, a fourth-quarter play that re-energized the Fieldhouse and helped hold Cleveland at bay until overtime.
Alas, Turner’s still a 19-year-old rookie who’s prone to making 19-year-old rookie mistakes. He missed an assignment for a high screen designed to free up Monta Ellis for a game-winning shot that could have avoided the eventual loss to Cleveland in overtime. Ellis and teammates promptly hounded the rookie, who was quick to offer a mea culpa. After all, two days before, Turner’s poorly executed screen left Ellis in No-Man’s Land at the end of the clock, resulting in overtime versus the Nuggets.
If you’re wondering why the Pacers played like their hair was on fire versus Atlanta last week, the home loss to the Cavs dropped Indy to 3-7 in games decided by a single possession, the most losses in the league according to Indianapolis sportswriter Bob Kravitz. While Turner was accepting blame, the team’s resident All-Star (3-for-15 FGs, 8 assists but 5 TOs) seemed a bit too eager to engage in some redirection. “Just some LeBron fans out there,” George excusplained following the game, followed later by, “Obviously, the calls weren’t going my way tonight. It happens.”
George has rarely been an efficient shooter or a consistent decision-maker with the ball in his hands, but the prospect of Indiana falling out of the playoff picture has some fans eager to flip the script earlier than what anyone planned. Vogel isn’t about to go that far. But having won his conceptual tug-of-war with GM Larry Bird, the Pacers coach is out to prove, with Turner, that only shooting stars break the mold.
“We don’t use the team ‘smashmouth’ around here anymore,” Vogel cheered to reporters back before Thanksgiving, when the new-look Pacers were firing from all cylinders while playing small-ball with George at the PF spot. But the tune has changed. Hey now, Paul George, you’re an All-Star, but we’re moving you back to the 3 for good. Hibbert and West, Redux? “That’s what we’re evolving back into,” Vogel told reporters after the Cavs game, “a dominant defensive unit that plays great big, plays smashmouth basketball, dominates with defense and rebounding.”
The bigs, starters Turner and Ian Mahinmi (out with a sore back, replaced by Jordan Hill), are down for that, and George (career-high 2.0 SPG) doesn’t mind a little less pounding in the paint. What will make Vogel’s design work, however, is a defensively active Ellis. He obliged with fourth-quarter steals of Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha last week, as the Hawks came unglued. Including that victory, Indiana is 6-1 when Ellis (25 points, 5-for-7 3FGs) leads the way in scoring. But a balanced effort, plus a diversion of the offense away from George, should help the Pacers turn things around quickly.
While the primetime national TV spotlight will be on George, there’s another All-Star Paul on the floor likely to draw some attention. Not long after the announcement that he’s headed to his third-straight All-Star Game, Paul Millsap tweaked his ankle at the Fieldhouse, exiting the contest 13 minutes in, and has been gingerly sleepwalking his way through the schedule ever since.
In his past three games, the Atlanta anchorman has scored just 11.7 PPG on 34.4% shooting from the floor, primarily camping out on the defensive end for blocks and defensive boards. The Hawks will need an active two-way Sap versus Turner and George. It will help Al Horford to exploit his matchup with Jordan Hill.
Jeff Teague shook out of his slumber in his hometown with nine first-quarter points, and carried the Hawks offensively (20 points). But he and Kyle Korver (1-for-7 3FGs last Thursday, 1-for-15 vs. IND this season) were mostly bystanders at Teague Time, when the Pacers made their winning fourth-quarter run. Bazemore has also fallen out of an offensive groove (35.3 FG%, 14.3 3FG%, 62.5 FT%), before the game against Philadelphia, and hopefully that game helped to shake him out of it. Both teams have been solid defenses that turn turnovers into points, and Bazemore can help the Hawks get an edge in that department tonight.
Millsap’s return against the Pacers means that Mike Budenholzer won’t have to rely on a three-wing lineup (Korver, Bazemore, and Sefolosha, alongside Teague and Horford) to save the day against Indiana’s bigger lineup. But Korver, Bazemore, and the Hawks backcourt must find openings along the perimeter, and convert, to encourage the Pacers to unpack the paint. This time, when the fourth-quarter rolls around, can the Hawks keep their enemies closer?
Let’s Go Hawks!