ATLANTA (AP) — The Indiana Pacers headed south Wednesday, finally carrying themselves with a swagger befitting the No. 1 seed.
Now, they need to prove they’re really back on track — at a place where they haven’t had much success over the years.
The Pacers evened the series against the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks with a dominating third-quarter performance in Game 2, stifling some of the incessant criticism the supposed best team in the East had endured after sleepwalking through the final seven weeks of the regular season and turning in a dismal performance in the playoff opener.
Of course, the condemnation will start up all over again if the Pacers falter in Game 3 on Thursday night.
They’ve got to keep their edge.
“That was my point to them,” coach Frank Vogel said after a practice in Indianapolis, before the team hopped on a 90-minute flight to Atlanta. “We’ve got to maintain that.”
While a bit down about their most recent showing, the Hawks already accomplished their primary goal of the series — win a game on the road to steal away the home-court advantage.
Besides, this team has endured plenty of adversity in recent years, from a massive overhaul that left Atlanta with almost an entirely new roster to the loss of top player Al Horford with a season-ending injury back in December. The Hawks may have lucked into the playoffs with the worst record of any qualifier (38-44), but they’ve shown plenty of grit and teamwork to make up for their deficiencies.
“Our group has been very, very resilient all year, very tough-minded all year,” rookie coach Mike Budenholzer said after a film session with his players. “I’ve felt good about this group all year, and I don’t feel any differently now.”
The Hawks did plenty of good things in the first two games, winning the opener rather easily, 101-93, and positioning themselves to pull off another shocker when they built an 11-point lead in the first half Tuesday night.
Suddenly, Indiana took control, outscoring the Hawks 52-27 through the rest of the half to the end of the third quarter, pretty much removing any doubt about the outcome when Paul George hit a long 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“We had to prove our point,” guard Lance Stephenson said.
The Pacers have won only twice at Philips Arena since December 2006, a drought that included a 13-game losing streak stretching for more than six years. But Vogel was quick to point out that Indiana has won two of its last three games in Atlanta, including a series-clinching victory in last year’s playoffs.
“We’ve won three of our last four if you’re counting the preseason,” he added.
Indiana struggled early on in Game 2, trying to get center Roy Hibbert more involved in the offense. When that didn’t work, the Pacers turned to more familiar weapons.
George scored 27 points, knocking down five 3-pointers. Point guard George Hill sparked the offense with his slashing drives into the lane, scoring 15 points over the final two quarters after going scoreless in the first half. Luis Scola provided a huge spark off the bench, scoring 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting, most of them jumpers in the 18- to 21-foot range.
“He hit a lot of shots,” Budenholzer said. “Credit to him. Now the challenge for us is to make those shots harder and more difficult and more challenged.”
The Hawks also have to figure out a way to get their point guard, Jeff Teague, to play more like he did in Game 1 (a career playoff-high 28 points) than he did in Game 2 (14 points, just two coming in the second half). The 6-foot-9 George switched over to cover the quicker player and did a marvelous job, limiting the penetration that allows Teague to set up good looks from the outside.
Atlanta went 10 of 29 beyond the arc, missing 11 in a row in one stretch as the Pacers seized control.
“Paul George is a very good defender no matter who he guards,” Budenholzer said. “He’s going to have an impact on the game.”
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