ATLANTA — The Indiana Pacers, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, have played so poorly for so long, it’s not surprising the Atlanta Hawks haven’t received much credit for taking a three-games-to-two lead in their best-of-seven NBA playoff series.
The question remains unanswered: What’s wrong with the Pacers? But perhaps it’s time we start examining what’s going right for the Hawks.
Unlike their shaky opponent, the Hawks are confident, unified and in position to accomplish a rare feat. With a victory Thursday night on their home court in Game 6, the Hawks would become just the sixth eighth-seeded team — though the third in the past four seasons — to win an opening-round series.
The Washington Wizards figure to be watching. After closing out the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night, the Wizards await the Indiana-Atlanta winner in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Just like the Wizards, the Hawks are playing some good basketball.
It starts with a team approach.
Power forward Paul Millsap has schooled the Pacers’ big men while averaging a team-high 21 points. Jeff Teague has encountered little resistance while regularly speeding past Indiana’s flat-footed guards. In addition to the Hawks’ solid 1-2 punch, their role players have delivered, too. Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Mike Scott — they’ve all given the Pacers fits.
Relying on rock-solid defense, Indiana reached the Eastern Conference finals last season. This season, the Pacers had the look of an NBA Finals contender until a nightmarish stretch in late March in which they dropped five of six. Cracks were appearing in their foundation.
Still, they managed to finish with the East’s best record, and most NBA observers expected them to get back on track against the Hawks, the only playoff team with a sub-.500 record. Unfortunately for the Pacers, their infighting and unsteadiness have continued.
Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner recently mixed it up during practice. After his breakout postseason performance a year ago, Roy Hibbert couldn’t play much worse if he tried. The Pacers are a mess. Of course, their problems aren’t enitrely of their own making.
“We have good players,” Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer said in a strong tone clearly meant to emphasize his point.
There’s no doubt the Hawks have performed well. Throughout the series, they’ve been the aggressors. If the Pacers were overconfident, they shouldn’t be now.
From the Hawks’ perspective, the pressure is on Indiana.
“We’re up, 3-2, it’s the first [team] to four [wins] and we’re the closest to four,” Hawks guard Louis Williams said. “We realize we have a huge opportunity on our home court. And when you’re up 3-2 and you know the next game is on your home floor, you’ve got to feel good about that.”
The Hawks are upbeat about what they’ve got going as a group.
Teams can’t fake the type of all-in-it-together camaraderie the Hawks have shown. On television, their energetic cheering for each other has been impossible to miss.
During the Hawks’ 107-97 road victory in Game 5, they outscored the Pacers, 41-19, in the second quarter. Scott made five three-pointers. After practice here Wednesday, many of Scott’s teammates focused on his timely contribution.
“I’ve seen him do it many times in practice,” Williams said. “It was good for him to do it on such a big stage when we needed him to do it. We believe in all our guys, and we know we can count on all our guys. You have to have that to get here.”
And when you’re a team many viewed as nothing more than a sparring partner for the Pacers, you also have something to prove.
The Hawks couldn’t care less about how they’re viewed nationally, they say. Since upsetting the Pacers in Game 1 on the road, they’ve done a good job of sticking to the script. “We’re not worried about what the Pacers are doing, what anyone thinks about us . . . we’re just focused on ourselves,” Teague said in echoing the party line.
Generally speaking, though, professional athletes are among the most competitive people on the planet. If there’s a perception that they’re not good enough, they usually compete harder. The Hawks sure seem to be out to make a point. And maybe they are, Carroll reluctantly acknowledged.
“We’ve got blue-collar guys like Paul Millsap, like Elton Brand, who don’t get a lot of recognition that they deserve,” Carroll he said. “So playing with a chip on our shoulder? You could say we do.”
Had forward Al Horford been healthy all season, the Hawks may not be playing the Pacers. The team’s best player has been sidelined since late December because of a torn chest muscle. At the time of his injury, Horford led the team with averages of 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds, and the Hawks were 16-13. They finished the regular season 38-44.
Most teams would struggle without their best player for 53 games, “and that’s why we never really looked ourselves as just a number eight seed,” Brand said. “If we were healthy the entire season . . . we just don’t look at ourselves like this [defeating the Pacers] is something we shouldn’t” be able to do.
By proving they can do a lot, the Hawks are starting to open eyes. And with another victory over the Pacers, they’ll open many more.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.