Under normal circumstances, one bad game could be shrugged off, particularly when it is the first of the postseason.
These are not normal circumstances.
This is an Indiana Pacers team on the brink of one of the most maddening, saddening collapses in franchise history.
All they had to do in Game 1 was give everyone around them, not to mention everyone within them, reason to believe they could pull out of the tailspin. They didn’t have to dominate the Atlanta Hawks, all they had to do was find a way to win a home game against the team with the worst record of the 16 in the NBA playoffs.
In other words, show a pulse.
And yet: Atlanta 101, Indiana 93. Do not be fooled by the final margin. This was a blowout.
It wasn’t quite as lopsided as the Hawks’ last visit, when they held the Pacers to a franchise-record-low 23 points in the first half and built a 35-point lead in the second on their way to a 19-point win, but in many ways it was worse.
There was no chance Atlanta was going to sneak up on the Pacers, no chance the top seed would take the eighth seed lightly. Indiana had all the motivational fuel to burn but fell for the banana in the tailpipe.
“Of course I’m disappointed, especially after the game they played previous to this one,” said Paul George. “We know how they can play when they’re on their A-game so we should’ve expected that coming into this one, that they were going to come out and play a similar ballgame, which they did. We’ve got to do a better job of containing guys.”
Namely, Jeff Teague.
One of the point guards Larry Bird ignored to draft Tyler Hansbrough in 2009, the Indianapolis native with the 317 tattoo once again embarrassed hometown zero George Hill, racking up 28 points, including 12 in the 20-4 third-quarter run that blew it open.
That Teague would win the point guard matchup was no surprise. That Paul Millsap would be the best power forward on the floor raised a few eyebrows. With David West in early foul trouble, Millsap took full advantage and scored 25 points. He and Teague combined for 27 of Atlanta’s 30 points in the decisive third quarter.
Of their 53 combined points, 18 came from the free throw line.
“We’ve got to be able to guard these guys without marching them to the free throw line,” said Frank Vogel. “They’re one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the NBA and we fouled 29 times. If we’re just going to march them to the free throw line it’s going to be a long series for us.”
The Pacers did manage to interrupt Pero Antic’s march to the Hall of Fame, but Roy Hibbert had little to do with. Or anything, for that matter. Six of his eight points came in the final minutes, after the outcome had been decided. Twice, the 7-2 center had his shot blocked by Kyle Korver.
“Now, we’ll find out what we’re made of,” Hibbert said, as if we didn’t already know.
The game hinged on two moments early in the third. After taking a knee to the thigh and cramping, George headed to the locker room with 7:24 left for treatment and the Pacers trailing by two. Forty-seven seconds later, West picked up his fourth foul.
With those two out prematurely, whatever rhythm the Pacers had was completely disrupted and the game got out of hand in a hurry. When George checked back in less than three minutes later, the deficit was 13.
“They played a great game. They played as good as they can play,” said George, who scored 24 but shot 6-for-18. “We feel like they made tough shots and I think Teague and Millsap both did great jobs making timely baskets, timely plays down the stretch. If we just lock into those two guys, I think this series will be in our hands.”
The thing is, there was no sense the Hawks felt like they’d played particularly well. Atlanta shot just 43 percent, had almost as many turnovers (12) as assists (13) and was outscored in transition (11-6).
When he took the podium after the game, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer opened his remarks with a lengthy, technical explanation of all the ways his team needs to play better.
This was not a fluky, hot-shooting night. This was a methodical demolition.
“We just have to stay the course,” said West.
Really? Because the Pacers’ current heading will take them directly into the rocks.