Under pressure, the Pacers blow out the Hawks

For Indiana, Game 2 had a last-stand feeling to it. “It’s a must win,” Roy Hibbert had said, and in that if nothing else the Indiana center was accurate. For the top-seeded Pacers to fall behind 2-0 and face elimination without seeing their beloved home floor again this season … well, if that wasn’t desperation at the door, it sure wasn’t Avon calling.

As everyone figured they would, the Pacers started fast. (Desperation can have that effect.) They led 7-0 after the Hawks went empty on their first five possessions, but the beauty of the Hawks — at least against the Pacers — is that they don’t run on empty for long. DeMarre Carroll made a 3-pointer off a Jeff Teague feed. Paul Millsap sank a 3-pointer from the top of the key. When Teague scored on a drive, the Hawks had scored on six of seven possessions to take a 13-11 lead.

The Pacers had spent the 68 1/2 hours between Games 1 and 2 setting a defense to stop Teague from driving, and what had been rumored — that the All-Star forward Paul George would seek to defend Teague on Tuesday — actually came to pass. Not that it lasted long, and not that it made any difference. The Indianapolis product had another dandy half, scoring 12 points and making four assists and again making the Hawks’ spread offense sing pretty melodies.

The Hawks led by five points after a quarter and by 11 with eight minutes left in the half. Bankers Life Fieldhouse hadn’t fallen silent, but this wasn’t happy noise being raised. This was audible nervousness. The East’s No. 1 seed was in clear and present danger of becoming the first No. 1 seed to get swept.

Nothing the Pacers tried availed them much. They would make a basket, and the Hawks would answer. After two George free throws brought Indy within five, Teague drove on the All-Star to score. After C.J. Watson made a trey to pare the deficit to three points, center Pero Antic nailed one over Hibbert. The half ended with Hibbert, who’s 7-foot-2, flubbing a 2-footer, his team four points in arrears.

The only reason the Pacers were that close was that sub forward Luis Scola scored 13 points in 11 minutes. If Indiana goes on to win this series, it will remember Scola — who didn’t made a basket in Game 1 — as the man who saved them on a night when little else was going right.

Apart from Scola, the Pacers’ offense again displayed no artistry, no imagination. They would have to move heaven and earth just to get a clean look at the rim; the Hawks, meanwhile, were getting nothing but. And they were, once again, making them. They made 8 of 18 treys in the first half, and when you do that you’re almost impossible to beat.

Almost, but not quite. The 3-pointers stopped dropping in the third quarter, and Indiana point guard George Hill — like Teague a Naptown native — made his first imprint on the series. Scola saved the game; Hill went out and won it.

He worked 13 minutes in the first half and did next to nothing — no points, no assists, one rebound. Teague had chased Hill to the bench in Game 1, but it was Hill who rendered himself invisible Tuesday. He wasn’t so much playing as taking up space.

Hill started the second half by making like Teague. He drove the lane, and his bursts galvanized a stagnant offense. He scored six quick points to bring the Pacers even. Then Lance Stephenson, exploiting a listing defense, flashed along the baseline for a layup and a free throw to make the score 62-59. The big building was rocking now. For the first time in two games, if not two months, the Pacers and their fans had reason to believe they were again seeing the real Pacers.

There’s something about putting the ball through the basket that emboldens a team at the other end. (For one thing, the opposition can’t fast-break if it’s taking the ball out of bounds.) Kyle Korver made the Hawks’ first trey of the third quarter, but then their staple shot deserted them. They missed their next nine 3-pointers, and if the Hawks don’t hit from distance, they’re an ordinary team. They were outscored 31-13 in the third quarter. The Pacers’ lead would grow to 27 in the fourth. The series was level.

The Hawks have to be pleased at being tied 1-1 heading to Philips Arena, where the Pacers have long struggled. They should also be buoyed at knowing they had a handle, at least for a half, on a game that meant far more to Indiana. But the Pacers proved a little something Tuesday, too. They proved they weren’t ready to quit, and that’s no small thing.

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