Pacers 100, Hawks 94
The Indiana Pacers built a team to withstand the perils of a long NBA season.
On Monday night, they showed why depth matters.
With Indiana playing without four key contributors because of injuries, Gerald Green scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half, including a game-saving 3-pointer in the final minute, to help the Pacers fend off Atlanta's furious fourth-quarter rally for a 100-94 victory.
''I feel good about our depth,'' coach Frank Vogel said. ''If a guy goes down, it won't be the end of the world for us.''
The Pacers, who haven't won a division title since 2003-04, maintained their grip on the Central Division race, extending their lead over second-place Chicago to five games with 11 left on Indiana's schedule. The Pacers' magic number is now seven and they're back in the No. 2 slot in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Knicks.
It sure wasn't as easy as it looked when the Pacers took a commanding 22-point lead after three quarters and Hawks coach Larry Drew emptied his bench to start the fourth. Somehow, though, the Pacers found just enough pieces to fill in and stop the Hawks on a night Atlanta could have clinched a playoff spot.
If the game proved anything, it was this: The Pacers' offseason blueprint works.
Already playing without swingman Danny Granger, who missed another game with patellar tendinosis in his left knee, and forward David West, who has now missed five straight games with a lower back sprain, the Pacers got even worse news about an hour before tip-off when Vogel announced point guard George Hill would sit out with a strained left groin and swingman Lance Stephenson, Granger's replacement, would miss the game with a strained right hip flexor.
Indiana (44-27) played the first three quarters with as much focus, determination and precision as it had all season, then nearly gave the game away before Green saved it with his 3 from the left corner with 34 seconds to play.
''We have to play better and I think we have to look at some things, some lineups and things like that, but I think it's unacceptable to be up 25 points or 22 points at the beginning of the fourth and let it get down to four,'' said Hibbert, who had 17 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. ''That's just unacceptable.''
Atlanta's postseason plans have been temporarily put on hold.
All the Hawks (39-32), who started the night in the No. 5 slot, needed to do to book their ticket into the NBA playoffs was beat the short-handed Pacers and watch the 76ers lose. Instead, they played dreadfully until Drew put his top players on the bench. Atlanta wound up forcing 10 fourth-quarter turnovers and trimmed an 85-63 deficit to 94-90 when John Jenkins made two free throws with 1:07 to go.
It still wasn't enough.
''We allowed the pressure to speed us up, and we allowed some (foul) calls to just completely take us out of what our focus should have been,'' Drew said when asked about the costly third-quarter. ''It was a game that we should have, I thought, should have been a little more focused and played a little bit more composed.''
Indiana, meanwhile, got key contributions from a handful of players.
Hibbert was strong on both ends of the court. Backup forward Jeff Pendergraph scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half. Hansbrough finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds. And Green, who replaced Stephenson in the lineup, put together more highlight-reel shots, including the decisive 3-pointer.
The Pacers turned a 26-26 tie after one quarter into a 58-43 halftime lead and used a 17-5 spurt to start the third quarter to put the Hawks in a 75-48 hole with 5:56 left.
But after trailing 85-63, the Hawks opened the fourth on a 14-2 run to close the deficit to 87-77 and rallied again with nine straight points late -- before Green hit the big shot to seal it.
''When he's ready to shoot and he don't have no thought, catch-and-shoot, he's dangerous,'' Paul George said. ''I've got the confidence he's going to make that shot. It was a gutsy shot, but we'll roll with it.''
Notes: Indiana and Atlanta finished the regular season by splitting their four-game series with the home team winning each game. ... Indiana now embarks on a four-game West Coast swing while the NCAA tournament's Midwest Regional comes to Indy. ... Atlanta scored 26 points in the first quarter and 31 in the fourth but managed only 37 combined in the second and third.