Taking care of business versus the Atlanta Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, for the second time in fifteen calendar days, should be of utmost importance to the Indiana Pacers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana). Hopefully, it won’t be necessary for the visitors to impress the value of this game upon the hosts.
The Pacers (37-28) are nearly at the high-water mark of where I could’ve expected the Hawks (20-45) to reside, under an absolute best-case scenario in this transitional NBA season. They’ve enjoyed a star turn from a young guard taking his lumps as he learns to lead a team on the fly (Victor Oladipo; Dennis Schröder), and continued, if unsteady, improvement from its longest-tenured contributor (Myles Turner; Kent Bazemore). Plus there has been better shooting (Bojan Bogdanovic; Marco Belinelli), veteran savvy (Thaddeus Young; Ersan Ilyasova) and emerging players that served as luxuries off the bench (Domantas Sabonis; John Collins).
Mix in some experienced coaching talent (Nate McMillan; Bud) and the Pacers have almost maxed out their conceivable success in the aftermath of their All-Star’s pre-season departure (Paul George; Paul Millsap). That should be cause for celebration in Hoosierville, especially for a team that eschewed the notion of tanking and has won seven of its past ten games, situating themselves within a mere 1.5 games of 3-seed Cleveland. Yet Indiana knows their last three defeats were the kind that should not have been left on the table.
They would be in that third-seed spot right now, but for losses to three teams that are outside-looking-in at the moment in the playoff picture. Two were bad road losses in consecutive contests, at Dallas and Atlanta, the latter a 107-102 loss on February 28. Their most recent setback was here at the Fieldhouse in a 104-84 defeat at the hands of Utah, the Pacers’ biggest home loss since mid-November.
To the Pacers and their fans, the reward for this fantastic voyage ought to be a first-round series that starts in their homecourt, not on the road in Toronto, Boston, or Cleveland. Continued step-backs versus non-playoff competition like Atlanta won’t put the cherry on their season-long sundae.
Four of Oladipo’s seven-worst games shooting from the field (based on TS%) have come in the seven Pacer games since his return from the All-Star Game. The two worst of his season were in his past two contests, at home versus Utah and division-rival Milwaukee, the latter a 92-89 grindfest where the Pacers simply had to hang on to fend off a late Greek Freak onslaught and obscure Oladipo’s career-high ten turnovers.
His other two worst off-shooting nights were against these Hawks, including Atlanta’s last visit here on February 23. Victor combined to shoot 14-for-41 FGs against Atlanta in the past two games, including 9-for-25 (1-for-9 3FGs) on the Wednesday before last.
On occasions like on the 23rd, when he got some help from teammates like Young (9-for-16 FGs, 5 steals), fill-in starter Cory Joseph (7-for-12 2FGs, 4 steals), plus Sabonis (8-for-11 2FGs, 5 O-Rebs), and the trippy Lance Stephenson (5-for-7 2FGs, 8 assists) off the bench, the Pacers can cruise versus lesser competition.
But then there are Off-adipo nights like the 28th, when Indy compounds bad, unbalanced shooting with sloppiness (season-high 24 player TOs; only other time committing more than 16 since December was 17 vs. ATL on Feb. 23) and a failure to box out (six O-Rebs by Mike Muscala on 2/28, matching ATL’s total on 2/23 by himself). When that happens, the Pacers can find themselves losing to anyone, even a Hawks team that is now, officially (as per Elias Sports Bureau) the most inexperienced in the NBA (estimated 1.6 average years of service as of Feb. 27).
McMillan will likely have some experienced help on hand ahead of tonight’s matchup. Usual starting guard Darren Collison (5.3 APG, 1.3 TOs/game) had arthroscopic knee surgery before the All-Star Break, but plans to contribute off the bench tonight. To help with rebounding and frontcourt depth, the team recently acquired former 76er Trevor Booker, who debuted for the Pacers against Milwaukee.
The fine folks at Bleacher Report took a beating from discerning fans this week. They attempted to call out the Hawks resting Bazemore, for the first time all season, back on March 4th as symbolic of “a massive tank problem” getting out of control throughout the league. This was a mistake almost as egregious as ESPN omitting the once under-utilized Collins (team-high 14 points @ TOR, tying Baze; 57.8 FG%, 5th-highest among qualifying rookies in NBA history) from their 25-under-25 list this week.
Hawks fan-writers Bo Churney and K.L. Chouinard were foremost in taking the B/R writers to task for their lazy observation. “(Baze) resting, the same Bazemore who had otherwise only missed a single game this year,” chastised Churney to B/R, “caused you to make a video about the NBA’s tanking ‘problem.’” Churney noted astutely, “The Hawks still won that game. This is either a you problem or blatantly misleading journalism.”
Most observant NBA fans concur that Atlanta has been about as forthright and above-board as anybody in the lottery game about their approach to this season. Here, there are no teammates harming their own cause by punching each other in the nose; no premature, fly-off-the-handle coach firings; no coaches sitting otherwise healthy talents for weeks on end; no coaches feuding with ten-year vets and sending them home to stew while still collecting a paycheck.
Belinelli was still hooping dutifully for this team when Memphis sand-bagged Tyreke Evans. Ilyasova was still hoping to stick around, at least until after a Payne-ful trade deal with a contender proved impossible to swing. On and off the court, this hasn’t been the atmosphere of blatant white-flagging that we’ve seen in other NBA locales. “Some teams may be dragging their feet,” Chouinard sub-tweeted regarding the B/R hit-piece video, “but pacing (Baze) for 79 games instead of 81 isn’t it. Look elsewhere.”
If the Hawks’ meager efforts result in a top-tier draft pick, that’s swell. But their insistence on getting younger, giving otherwise wholly inexperienced players a chance to show how they might become NBA regulars with real minutes and strategic development, has been straight-forward from the moment Tyler Cavanaugh started getting steady floor time back in November, if not before.
Everyone from the Suns to the Warriors can vouch for the fact that Coach Bud’s Hawks are not mailing games in, certainly not from tipoff. They have entered the fourth quarter of their past four games no more than six points behind their competitors, including Tuesday night, where they held a hotly-contested one-point lead at Air Canada Centre before finally letting go of the rope for the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors.
While oft-critiqued as a sign of tanking in broad daylight, Budenholzer’s decision whether to ride with his leading scorer, Schröder, in the close of contests hasn’t decisively affected the outcomes either way, especially when one considers that the point guard’s defensive deficiencies aren’t always on the court, either.
The Hawks have been ceding more points since the All-Star Break (112.2 opponent PPG, up from 107.8 pre-Break). But that has been mostly a function of a hike in turnovers (18.3 post, 14.8 pre) and a propensity for fouling rather than properly contesting, especially in away games (33 opponent FTAs @ TOR; 0-14 on road when allowing 25+ FTAs).
Despite a great season thus far, the Pacers’ fans (and, Some Others) hope this team has learned from the last Hawks game that resting on their laurels is premature, at best. If Indiana sits back and fails to attack Atlanta’s less-experienced playmakers, move the ball, and secure defensive rebounds, they will again find themselves like many of Atlanta’s opponents, looking up at the second-half scoreboard and wondering: “Who are these guys? And why are we still in a dogfight with them?”
Let’s Go Hawks!