The Hawks handle the Pacers, and this time it’s no shock

Entering Game 1, folks wondered if the No. 8 seed had a chance. Headed toward Game 2, we ask a rather different question: Can the No. 8 seed sweep?

The Pacers began the NBA playoffs Saturday with a case to restate. All they did was reinforce the notion that has lingered for the past two weeks — that the eighth-seeded Hawks, as strange as it sounds, are superior to the team that was for much of the season the NBA’s finest.

The No. 8 seed didn’t just steal Game 1 here Saturday. Speaking figuratively, the Hawks broke down the door and sprayed bright-red graffiti all over Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They embarrassed the Pacers in a way good teams aren’t supposed to be embarrassed in the playoffs. The Hawks thought harder, fought harder and shot better. They were so good you almost felt bad for the vanquished home side.

Because the proud Pacers, who reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season and had clear designs on a championship this time, are in real danger of elimination by a team missing its best player. Yes, the Hawks still have to beat Indiana three more times to advance, but nothing that happened in Game 1 suggested that the Pacers were any closer to figuring things out than in that epic regular-season thrashing the Hawks administered on this floor only 13 days earlier.

The Hawks didn’t lead 55-23 at the halftime this night — actually, the score was tied at 50 — but the precision of this second-half dissection was, for the folks in Hoosier land, even more troubling. The Pacers had two weeks to go to school on that April 6 game, and it availed them not at all. They still got rolled. Roy Hibbert still was no factor. The Hawks still have the smarter team and the smarter coach.

Given all that has happened this season, what with Al Horford getting hurt and Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver missing time and the Hawks nearly falling off the playoff grid before righting themselves, we forget that this is Mike Budenholzer’s first season with these players, many of whom are themselves new. The Hawks infuriated some purists by insisting they weren’t spending much time watching the standings as the season wound down — they were more concerned about building a system, they said — but it’s fair to say the system is now in place and, sure enough, the darned thing works.

A tiny example: The Pacers jumped ahead 7-2 and had the crowd going. The Hawks had an inbounds play in front of their bench. Budenholzer called “2,” and we can infer from what happened that “2” is a play that calls for Korver to slice off a low screen and make a 3-pointer from the top of the key. These Hawks do that sort of thing all the time. They get a lot of very good shots at very important moments. When they make them, they’re hard to handle.

Before the game, Budenholzer said: “We want a lot of ball movement, a lot of player movement and a lot of pace.” He also said: “We want the rim (meaning a layup) or a 3.”

That’s what they got in Game 1. Half of their first-quarter shots were 3-point tries, which forced the Pacers again to chase. The Pacers, especially the ponderous center Hibbert, aren’t good at chasing. The Hawks led by nine in the first quarter only to fall into a tie by the half, but even then they had the game going their way. Indiana’s prized defense hadn’t been allowed to claim a toehold, and the Pacers won’t beat many teams by simply outscoring them.

The third quarter was a clinic. The Hawks scored 30 points, 14 of them by the Indy product Jeff Teague, who chased first George Hill and then C.J. Watson to the bench. By making the Pacers spread out, the lane was clear for Teague. He finished with 28 points and five assists and easily was the best player on the floor.

The Pacers’ response was to collapse. They were called for three offensive fouls and a technical in the third quarter. They had as many turnovers (five) as baskets over those 12 minutes. Even a cosmetic surge near the end couldn’t disguise what had happened: The No. 1 seed had been beaten soundly in a game it needed badly. What leads us to believe that Games 2 and 3 and beyond will be any different?

But enough. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Let’s leave it at this: A No. 8 seed treating the No. 1 so rudely would have qualified as a major shock — except that the Hawks, having coalesced into something approximating the team that general manager Danny Ferry and Budenholzer envisioned, really aren’t a No. 8 seed. They’re way better than that.