First, the good news: the Pacers have done a hell of a job on Pero Antic.
Now, the bad news: they can’t seem to stop anybody else, not even Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack.
Two players that had combined to score 52 points in the first four games turned into reasonable facsimiles of Michael and Scottie, or perhaps even LeBron and D-Wade, in Game 5 Monday night. Mack had 20, Scott 17 off the bench – both postseason career highs – as Atlanta once again stunned the Pacers 107-97 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse to take a 3-2 series lead.
The Pacers have never come back from a 3-2 deficit, failing all 10 previous attempts.
Almost all of that work was done in the second quarter, when they combined for 30 of Atlanta’s 41 points against an Indiana defense that seemed utterly befuddled by two of the sport’s most basic actions: pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop. You have to go back 23 years to find a postseason period in which the Pacers surrendered more.
Scott made four straight 3-pointers in 1:46 early in the period – as many as he had made in his previous eight games and 20 attempts combined – as the Hawks jumped out to a 33-21 lead. The only adjustment made by Coach Frank Vogel during that burst was to bring Roy Hibbert into the game, making the defense that much slower and less reactive.
Once the starters returned, the dam already had burst. Atlanta’s lead grew to 57-32 late in the period and reached 30 in the third before desperation led Vogel to insert Chris Copeland into the game, sparking a stirring but futile, and ultimately meaningless, comeback.
“That four-to-six minute stretch at the start of the second quarter, man, that’s the game,” said David West. “We can’t allow … everybody’s got to be ready to play and the window for success in the playoffs is so small and you’ve got to take advantage and I just thought for whatever reason we were flat to start that second, Mike Scott comes out bombing threes and it put us in a hole that was too great to overcome.
“I thought we played a tough first quarter, thought we were playing at our pace and all of a sudden they just smacked the game open. From that point on, we’re looking up at the score, down 20 … it’s almost impossible with the way they shoot the ball, how steady they are, the amount of guards they have, it’s a struggle to climb out of that type of hole, particularly at this time of year.”
Paul George had his fifth consecutive double-double with 26 points and 12 rebounds, adding six assists and six steals. West, George Hill and Lance Stephenson scored 15 apiece, and C.J. Watson had 15 off the bench.
But the guy everyone was asking about after the game was Copeland. Once he checked in with the Pacers trailing 77-50 midway through the third period, everything changed. With Copeland’s 3-point threat spreading the Atlanta defense, all of a sudden driving lanes opened up and Indiana’s offense sprang to life.
That, in turn, gave fuel to an extended, trapping defense. Forced to go deep into the clock to get to one option, Atlanta’s easy buckets dried up.
Indiana’s run reached 30-11, cutting the deficit to 96-87 on Watson’s layup with 4:03 remaining, but ended when Kyle Korver hit a 3-pointer to make it a 12-point game.
Vogel has been reluctant to employ Copeland, in part because he is behind West and Luis Scola on the depth chart but also because he is perceived to be a defensive liability. It should be noted here that Copeland had three blocked shots in less than 20 minutes in Game 5, as many as purported defensive stopper Roy Hibbert has in the series.
“Cope was very useful,” said George. “Everyone knows him for his shot-making ability but Cope is as good as it comes as far as a playmaker as well. It felt good having him out there. He stepped up when his number was called.
“He (commands) almost the same respect as Korver has. You can’t leave him. Somebody always has to be around him, which takes guys out of gaps and allows guys to penetrate and get to the basket.”
With Hibbert producing no points or rebounds for the first time in his career, playing just 12 minutes and picking up four fouls, the question once again will arise: will Vogel bench his struggling center and go a different route in order to better match up with Atlanta’s smaller, quicker attack?
“Consider everything at this point,” he said after Game 5.
It would be a mistake to overreact to a comeback borne of 30-point-deficit desperation because the team in the lead naturally relents and the team in the hole invariably becomes desperate.
It likewise would be a mistake to ignore what has become even more painfully obvious in this series.
The Hawks know who they are, playing to their identity with consistency, precision and passion.
And the Pacers? When they look in the mirror these days, the image they project is something no one recognizes.