>> EXORCIZING HIBBERT’S DEMONS
Though most of the focus has been, and will be, on the Paul George-Josh Smith matchup, the bigger issue for the Pacers is finding a way to exploit what should be their best matchup: Roy Hibbert vs. Johan Petro.
The problem is this: it’s really Hibbert vs. the city of Atlanta. In 10 career games there, Hibbert has never won and rarely played even respectably. His numbers: 8.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, .366 shooting.
The odd thing about it is, he has gotten progressively worse with age. As a rookie, he scored 31 points in two games in Atlanta. This season, his fifth in the league, he has totaled 17 points on 7-for-22 shooting (.318) in three games in Philips Arena.
With Atlanta coach Larry Drew switching to a big lineup in Game 3, producing a 90-69 Hawks win as Hibbert had eight points and nine rebounds, every other matchup on the floor is fairly even. Where the Pacers need the advantage is in the middle. Drew in essence is daring Hibbert to beat the Hawks. Time to take him up on that.
>> BIG CHALLENGE FOR GEORGE
The box score from Game 3 indicates a fairly neutral matchup at small forward, where each team’s best player resides. George had 16 points and nine rebounds, while Smith had 14 points, six rebounds and six assists.
The numbers lied.
Smith dominated the matchup at both ends of the floor, using his strength in the post to overpower George while using his quickness defensively to frustrate him. George committed five turnovers and shot 4-for-11.
More importantly, Smith played with more energy, aggression and focus, three traits for which he is not particularly well-known.
George doesn’t have to dominate the game offensively, but he does need to protect the ball and be efficient. He also needs to be smarter defensively against the left-handed Smith, who loves the right block because he can turn to his right shoulder toward the hoop.
If the Pacers bring double-team help, Smith is a willing and able passer, but he also has been prone to pile up turnovers when forced to read through second and third options.
>> WHICH BENCH WILL SHOW UP?
After getting lively and productive performances from the second unit in the first two games, the Pacers got basically nothing off the bench in Game 3 as the reserves combined to shoot 6-for-33 (.182), including 2-for-15 (.133) from the 3-point line.
With Kyle Korver now coming off the bench, the Hawks have much-needed firepower in reserve to complement Ivan Johnson, who has been Anthony Mason Lite.
Gerald Green has put up numbers (12.0 points, .381 from the 3-point line) but needs to be more judicious – of his 31 shots, 21 have come from the arc. And now that the Hawks have gone with a bigger lineup, it might be time to return Ian Mahinmi to the mix to give the defense another rim-protector.
>> TIME TO GET DEFENSIVE
As much pride as they claim to take in their defense, the Pacers have struggled to stop the Hawks. They won the first two games with explosive offense, which masked a defense that yielded .497 shooting and 94 points per game. Despite fielding a lineup that was theoretically less explosive in Game 3 with Petro replacing Korver, the Hawks rolled up 54 points in the first half, by which time the outcome was decided.
It all starts on the perimeter. Atlanta starts two point guards, Jeff Teague and Devin Harris, and both have the speed to break down a defense either in transition or in the halfcourt. Neither is much of a perimeter threat (they’re a combined 4-for-15 from the 3-point line) so it might be wise to give them space, go under the pick-and-rolls and by all means get back in transition.
>> REGAIN THE OFFENSIVE
More than anything else, the Pacers won the first two games because they were the aggressors, physically and emotionally. They were very much on their heels in Game 3, allowing the Hawks to push them around.
The most important key, the one that unlocks every matchup, is for the Pacers to regain the offensive, sharpen their edge and focus, and play like the more desperate team. If they don’t, they’ll come back to Indianapolis 2-2 – and then the desperation will be very real.