>> DEFEND THE FORTRESS
Their offensive outbursts in winning the first two games masked a problem that has been simmering for more than a month: the once-dominant Indiana defense has sprung several leaks.
And the dam burst in Atlanta as the Pacers were beaten twice.
They believe they regained that edge in the second half of Game 4, specifically the third quarter, when they held the Hawks to 12 points to get back in the game.
“Most of the year, besides the last couple of weeks, defense is going to win basketball games,” said George Hill. “No matter if your offense isn’t clicking on all cylinders, as long as you defend the right way it gives you a chance. But if you’re not making shots and you’re not defending, that’s the ballgame.”
The Pacers have yielded at least 90 points in 12 straight games, the longest such streak since the 2010-11 season.
Make no mistake, 90 is the tipping point for this team. They were 31-6 during the regular season when holding opponents below that number, 18-26 otherwise. The last three seasons, the records are 63-8 and 67-93, respectively.>> PLAY WITH GAME 7 MINDSET
If they lose Game 5, the Pacers will have to do something they haven’t done in seven years and 13 tries to stay alive – win in Atlanta. That’s why tonight’s game takes on an enhanced sense of urgency for a team that has lacked it the last two games.
“I think we won Games 1 and 2 so easily, maybe we lost sight of how good this (Atlanta) basketball team is,” said Frank Vogel. “Now, we understand that.”
“We’re back to reality now,” Hill said. “Game 5 is a must-win for us.”
Another troubling habit from the late-season slump resurfaced in Atlanta – poor starts followed by implosion. In their final six regular season games, they trailed by at least 20 points.
In Atlanta, they were outscored 111-70 in the first half, falling behind by 28 in Game 3 and 19 in Game 4. Add it all up, and that’s six deficits of at least 19 points in the last eight games.
Given those struggles, is this team’s confidence where it needs to be?
“Who knows?” said Hill. “We’ll see (tonight) where everybody’s confidence is. I’m sure everybody’s a man, is going to man-up and take constructive criticism and deal with it and move on from there and be ready to play.”
>> COUNTER ATLANTA’S BIG LINEUP
Hawks coach Larry Drew staged the strategic coup of the series by switching to a big lineup for Game 3, but it had less to do with Johan Petro at center than it did moving Josh Smith to small forward, where he matched up with Paul George.
George dominated the first two games when matched up against Kyle Korver and Devin Harris, racking up 50 points, 19 rebounds and 14 assists.
In the last two games, George struggled (shooting 37 percent with nine turnovers) while Smith produced 43 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists and seven steals.
George was the only starter that took Vogel’s option not to practice Tuesday and was not at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“He didn’t make shots a lot in the last couple of games, maybe tried to force a little too much,” Vogel said.
The Pacers’ biggest perceived advantage in this series is its frontcourt tandem of David West and Roy Hibbert, but they have been neutralized. In Atlanta, those two combined for 55 points and 28 rebounds, while the Hawks’ Petro and Al Horford combined for 54 points and 33 boards.
Vogel said he could make some “subtle adjustments” but it’s more a matter of better execution of the existing plan, not a change of plan.
>> DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE BENCH
Atlanta blew open both Games 1 and 2 during the period of time when the first wave of substitutions typically come – late in the first quarter and early in the second. The Hawks outscored the Pacers 62-35 in the second quarter alone.
Where the second unit was surprisingly effective in the first two games, it reverted to the norm in Atlanta, producing just 39 points on 13-for-52 shooting (.250).
Vogel already has made one change, replacing Jeff Pendergraph with Ian Mahinmi as the backup center. He needs to consider benching Gerald Green, whose ineffective defense far outweighs his occasional scoring bursts.
Four of the five starters played at least 38 minutes in Game 4. Look for all five to approach or exceed that number tonight.