ATLANTA — For the second time in this series, the Atlanta Hawks let a late lead slip away at home and now they will have to go to Indiana and win for the third time on the road to advance to the second round after falling 95-88 on Thursday in Game 6 at Philips Arena.
"It’s tough but it’s the playoffs," said Hawks forward Paul Millsap, who had 16 points and a game-high 18 rebounds, of the difficulty of beating the Eastern Conference’s top seed on its own court so many times in one series. "We’re the eighth seed. They have home-court advantage. It’s the route we’ve got to take."
One huge factor hangs in the balance: whether some of the Pacers could be suspended for Game 7. With 19 seconds left before halftime, the Hawks’ Mike Scott and the Pacers’ George Hill received double technical fouls as a brief scuffle broke out under Indiana’s basket. It appeared that some Indiana players might have left the bench — one of whom appeared to be leading scorer Paul George — and that could result in a suspension.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel seemed unworried about the situation.
"I haven’t seen it," said Vogel of video of the incident. "Somebody told me about it. I’m not concerned about any suspensions until we hear something … I don’t imagine that there would be."
With the Hawks leading by 84-79 with 3:16 left in regulation, Indiana went on a 14-1 run to take control of the game. As was the case in the Hawks’ Game 4 loss in which they led by 10 in the third quarter and by two points with about two minutes to go, the Hawks hurt themselves with turnovers and mistakes.
During the Pacers’ late run on Thursday, Pero Antic lost the ball for a turnover, as did Lou Williams, who leaped under the basket, didn’t have a clear path for a shot and threw the ball into the arms of George with 34.9 seconds left. At that point, the Hawks trailed by two points but Williams’ subsequent foul on George and George’s two free throws helped to put the game away.
Hawks point guard Jeff Teague, who scored a game-high 29 points, said the Hawks’ offense grew stagnant at that juncture. As in Game 4, the Hawks didn’t execute their offense well, often taking their possessions late into the shot clock and that resulted in bad shots. The Hawks shot 35.8 percent for the game to the Pacers’ 42.9 percent.
While the series has proved intense and physical, Game 6 might have been the most physical, a situation that the Hawks struggled with at times. In the first half, Indiana’s Lance Stephenson tripped Antic behind the play and was called for a foul. There was the double technical situation and plenty of bodies hitting the floor.
The wrestling-match style seemed to play into the hands of Indiana, the more defensive-oriented team.
Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll said there was plenty of pushing and shoving but chalked that up to playoff basketball. Still, he said the Hawks could have handled the situation better.
"I think we can do better," he said. "The ref, they’re doing a job out there, and they do a great job out there. We’ve got to just stop looking for the ref for fouls and play our game."
Teague, who scored 12 points during the third quarter to turn a nine-point deficit into a three-point lead entering the fourth quarter, said the Pacers play "bully ball."
"They’re just a physical team any way," he said. "They play bully ball. They have the size advantage and they have some big guys over there. We’re used to it. They’re a physical group. We play physical, too. But it’s the playoffs. Everyone plays physical. There’s bumping all over the ball. It’s just what it is."
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer seemed less concerned with the physical play than he did the Hawks’ execution.
"We put ourselves in position to win a game," he said. "I think we responded to the physicality of the game. There’s always areas where we can improve and be better but I don’t think the physicality — I think both teams were playing very physical. Both teams were doing everything we could. I think we can play better."
Undoubtedly. Millsap pointed out how the Hawks only had 14 assists. During the regular season, they were among the top two teams in the NBA in that category, averaging 23. It stands to reason that if their assists increase, they will get better shots and make a higher percentage.
It’s an adjustment they will have to make on the road in Game 7 on Saturday.
"We need to get to the next game and get our focus prepared," said Budenholzer. "We’ve responded well all year when we’ve been in difficult situations. Part of our response is going to have to be better execution. I think we have a lot of positive reference points from all year. Our group has been very good and very resilient. I have a lot of confidence in our group and this is the next challenge for us."