Pacers need to get a grip — on reality and on themselves

It was the Atlanta Hawks who looked like a professional outfit and played as if they were just out there having fun. The Indiana Pacers haven’t been those things for two months.

In what should’ve been a shocker but actually wasn’t, the visiting Hawks cruised to a 101-93 victory over the Pacers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series. The Hawks are the eighth seed and compiled the worst record of any team in the league to qualify for the playoffs. In theory, the Pacers are the first seed.

But the Pacers sure didn’t look like it — continuing an uneven (at best) stretch that began shortly after the NBA trading deadline in late February. Thanks to a fantastic start to the season and the Miami Heat not really caring at the end, the Pacers sort of backed their way into the top seed. Now, they’ll have to back out of whatever it is that ails them today.

The Pacers continued their awkwardness on offense and failed to get any meaningful stops on defense. They never led in the second half. Meanwhile, the Hawks — who finished second in the league in assists (trailing only the San Antonio Spurs) — crisply moved the ball and made all the hustle plays. They looked like the ones who believe they can win the whole the thing. Perhaps they do believe that. And hey, why not? They just clobbered the team that is supposed to be the best in the East.

"We don’t think we are an eighth seed," said Hawks forward Paul Millsap, who scored 25 points and grabbed eight rebounds. "We think we are better than an eighth seed."

Millsap and point guard Jeff Teague (game-high 28 points) were the beneficiaries of the Hawks’ incredible unselfishness, finishing the job after the team had worked for the best possible shot. For most of the second half, the Pacers basically just stood around and watched.

That’s why the Hawks contolled this thing almost the entire way — save for a Pacers spurt in the second quarter. But even as much as Paul George (24 points) and Lance Stephenson (19) paved the way, all the Pacers could manage was a 50-all tie at halftime. The Hawks went on an 8-0 run to start the third quarter, and that was pretty much that.

Their run extended to 20-4, and with 1:30 remaining in the third, they had built an insurmountable 80-62 advantage. The Pacers only made the score seem respectable at the end. But don’t be fooled. It wasn’t actually respectable.

Of course, all the credit for the Hawks’ win shouldn’t just be passed off to the fact the Pacers are a mess. While that’s certainly part of it, we can’t forget that the Hawks finished the regular season by winning five of their final seven. That allowed them to overcome the loss of star Al Horford (torn pectoral muscle) for the year, as well as their sluggish March.

Basically, the Hawks proved they can play their best when it means the most. They did it at the end of the regular season, they did it at the start of the postseason.

"If we can play with some pace and move the ball and do the things we’ve been talking about, that is how we want to play," said coach Mike Budenholzer, in his first season with the Hawks after 19 years in various assistant roles with the Spurs. "I’m happy for our guys to be rewarded for their efforts and for the way they played together."

This was the Hawks’ second rout in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in three weeks, and the Pacers behaved the same way after Game 1 as they did back then. They held a players-only meeting to try to gather themselves.

It sort of worked then, as they played (slightly) better in the final few weeks of the regular season. But they have to stop doing things behind closed doors and start doing them for all the world to see again. Otherwise, it will just be more of this, and what’s supposed to be a banner year will be nothing more than an NBA train wreck of untapped potential.

"It’s frustrating," George said, before repeating the sentiment. "It’s frustrating, but it’s a long series. It’s just one game and that’s the way we have to look at it."

That is true, and despite the loss, the Pacers remain major favorites. But being called the favorite and playing like it are two different things entirely.

Hopefully for the Pacers’ sake, they actually understand that now.

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