“WHO doesn’t want us to win, you ask? The Tank People! They! THEY!!!”
As both a Buck and a Hawk, Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson played a valuable role in the Atlanta Hawks piling up losses over the years. Will his son continue that hallowed tradition tonight?
Making his season debut for the host Indiana Pacers (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana), Glenn Robinson III returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse just in time to haunt the Hawks. In March of last season, as Papa Dog looked on from the Philips Arena stands, he ran to the left corner to catch-and-sink a buzzer-beating three-pointer that stole a win away from a Hawks team that was hungering for playoff seed-boosting victories.
A Gary, Indiana native, Robinson, 2016’s Slam Dunk champ, returns after preseason ankle surgeries curtailed what was shaping up as a promotion following the negotiated departure of former star Paul George. Pacers coach Nate McMillan intends to limit GR3’s playing time to ten minutes at the outset. But if the game gets tight late against a Hawks team (18-41) bearing the league’s worst road-game and in-conference marks, and playoff implications hang in the balance for Indiana (33-25), the temptation for Coach Nate to deploy his newest closer will be high.
There were over half-dozen Eastern Conference teams that I questioned coming into this season, playoff-promising teams with flaws that might have them instead hanging with the Hawks by season’s end. But the Pacers have done the best to overcome my healthy skepticism.
Arriving from OKC via the George trade, Victor Oladipo (career-high 24.4 PPG) has taken the vacated leadership mantle with an exuberant attitude, earning his first All-Star nod in the process. The fifth-year pro’s shot accuracy (53.5 2FG%, 38.1 3FG%) and defensive production (4.8 D-Rebs/game, 2.1 SPG) are blowing away prior career-bests (49.1 2FG% and 36.1 3FG%; 4.1 D-Rebs and 1.7 steals per game).
No longer having his usage sucked away by mediocre Magic players or MVP winners in OKC, Oladipo’s emergence as an efficient offensive threat comes right on time for an Indiana club that would have been fine settling for a short-term recession, like the Hawks, but is now budding with confidence they can be much more than the first-round-exit fodder they’ve been during George’s final seasons.
Oladipo is the clear top-banana. But, as was often the case when George was the star, Indiana stands out by having a constellation of second-tier talents taking turns in the role of Oladipo’s #2 offensive sidekick. At times, it’s Victor’s fellow arrival from OKC, Domantas Sabonis (want to insta-peeve a Magic fan? Say these words: Serge Ibaka Trade), who continues to show a mastery of rebounding as a sixth-man (team-high 8.2 RPG in 25.3 minutes/game). Other times, it’s longtime veteran Thaddeus Young, who has been the NBA’s MMP (Most Median Player) for years.
On occasion, it’s Indiana’s leading assist-man, Darren Collison, who has been a steadying influence (5.3 APG, 1.3 TOs/game), but remains out for another week following arthroscopic knee surgery a few weeks ago. If you ask Lance Stephenson (32.5 3FG%), he’ll tell you he’s the main sidekick, or maybe even the headliner. Myles Turner ought to be that guy, but the young third-year center continues to struggle with post strength and consistency. The current leading wing-man for Oladipo has been Bojan Bogdanovic, who has become the Pacers’ second-leading scorer while shedding a season full of struggles with his jumper (last 7 games before the break: 19.1 PPG, 47.6 3FG%, 87.5 FT%). Robinson will only add to the plethora of options for McMillan to pair alongside Oladipo.
With Collison out, the Pacers’ star will have to pick between defending Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder and sticking to the wing and leaving that assignment to current starter Cory Joseph (15 points, season-high 11 rebounds @ BRK on Feb. 14). Tending to Schröder could create some openings along the perimeter for the Hawks’ Kent Bazemore (3-for-4 3FGs vs. IND on Dec. 20; 64.3 3FG% in his past 3 games). Baze was rested along with Dennis during the Hawks’ pre-Break finale, a 104-98 loss in Detroit that was way more thrilling than it should have been for the Pistons.
At least for today, Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks will have a depth advantage at the point, even without Malcolm Delaney (knee), who started and matched Isaiah Taylor (questionable, sprained ankle) with seven assists in Detroit. Tyler Dorsey (6 assists @ DET), DeAndre’ Bembry and newcomer Andrew White will also help with moving the rock, on behalf of the Hawks offense. Picked up by the Pacers on a 10-day deal during the break, guard Trey McKinney-Jones and will try to help alleviate his teammates on the defensive end.
Atlanta’s 105-95 home loss to the Pacers on December 20 came without Dewayne Dedmon (last 3 games: 61.5 FG%, 42.9 3FG%, 13.7 PPG, 10.0 RPG), who will try to create mismatches around the paint against Turner and Al Jefferson. If Turner’s mid-range game isn’t on-point, it could be a long day for the Pacers’ frontline against Dedmon, John Collins and Ersan Ilyasova.
The Hawks will have to do a better job of pressuring the Pacers into turnovers. They managed to produce just 9 player TOs, tied for a season-low, when Indiana visited back in December. Getting stops and creating more transition buckets are what often helps the Hawks narrow gaps against superior competition.
A trip to Dallas is sandwiched by the home-and-home series between these two clubs. These are clearly winnable games for the taking for Indiana, who gets the Hawks three times over the next 15 days. Having won three straight before the Break, the Pacers are a mere two games out of the East’s 3-seed, where Cleveland currently resides. But they are 4.5 games in front of the playoff-hungry Pistons, and even closer to Milwaukee and Philadelphia, opponents who are on the horizon as the calendar turns to March. That makes the next three games imperative for Indy to navigate through, without any slip-ups.
Oladipo is the obvious choice for the Pacers in a tight fourth-quarter affair. But if Atlanta continues hanging around at the Fieldhouse, and Victor gets bottled up in the clutch, to whom might McMillan turn, to save the day once again? “Get Along, Little Doggie…”
Let’s Go Hawks!