ATLANTA — Seen through one prism, perhaps through that of the national media, it is a shock — shock! — that the Atlanta Hawks, the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, hold a 2-1 series lead over top-seeded Indiana.
Not only do the Hawks lead the series but they have essentially controlled most of it. In the 12 quarters played so far, the Hawks have outscored Indiana in six, been outscored in five and tied in one. They have yet to trail at halftime in the series and have only trailed after three quarters in the one game that they lost (Game 2). So while some continue to pursue the narrative of the imploding Pacers, a narrative that has a good deal of merit, there also is the competing one of the Hawks as more than just a team that squeaked into the playoffs with a losing record.
"I said it before, we had a lot of injuries this year so we’re not your normal eight seed," Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll said after practice on Friday. "Teams keep thinking we’re a normal 8-seed, we’re going to keep proving that we’re not your normal 8-seed. We’re healthy."
That’s not just bluster. As of Feb. 3, the Hawks were in third place in the Eastern Conference. Then injuries that Carroll referenced took a decimating toll on them. First and foremost was the delayed impact of the loss of two-time All-Star center Al Horford, who suffered a season-ending pectoral injury. Two other centers, Pero Antic, the current starter, and Gustavo Ayon, missed games concurrently. Kyle Korver (back), Jeff Teague (ankle), Paul Millsap (knee) and Carroll (hamstring) also missed games here and there.
No member of the starting five went unscathed.
As a result, the Hawks lost 20 games in a 26-game stretch. Subtract that stretch from their 38-44 regular season record and they were 32-24 (a .571 winning percentage). Perhaps that mark is a more true reflection of who the Hawks are, making their success against Indiana a lot easier to comprehend.
"I think the way the team finished the year and being healthy … this is probably the healthiest we’ve been," coach Mike Budenholzer said, "and it’s so important for every team to be healthy. Hopefully, we can maintain that and I think our guys are getting a little bit of an understanding for what it takes for us to be good."
In terms of that understanding, Budenholzer continues to preach the importance of defense. The Hawks did their best job of the series defending Pacers’ star forward Paul George in Game 3, holding the effective wing scoreless in the first half. He finished with 12 points. But limiting George, who went for 51 points in the first two games, will require continuous effort. In Game 3, the Hawks also did a strong job defending Indiana starting point guard George Hill, who hit just of his 11 shots and finished with four points, and All-Star center Roy Hibbert (four points on 2-of-9 shooting), who has continued his mysterious disappearing act.
Three players the Hawks need to focus more on stopping are guard Lance Stephenson, who has averaged 15.7 points in the series, forward David West, who has made 11 of his last 18 shots over the past two games, and reserve forward Luis Scola, who has scored 37 points in the past two games in only 39 minutes.
In the chess match that is any seven-game series, one of the big questions for Game 4 on Saturday is whether Indiana coach Frank Vogel will elect to bench Hibbert in favor of Scola. Vogel gave no indications after Game 3 but only promised to explore more options and on Friday initial reports out of the Pacers camp was that Vogel planned the same player rotations.
In any event, the Hawks spent part of Friday preparing for how to defend Scola better.
"I think Scola’s given us problems because we really haven’t adjusted to just Scola," Carroll said. "Today was the first day we adjusted to Scola. Our game plan was really around Paul George and David West and I think today coaches made adjustments to Scola. Hopefully, we can put it together tomorrow and it can work out."
If they do and the Hawks can win again at Philips Arena — a place where the Pacers have struggled for years — the Hawks will have a stranglehold on the series.
Point guard Jeff Teague, who has been the Hawks’ best player in their two wins, didn’t agree that the Hawks control the series at this point.
"I wouldn’t say we have control," he said. "They’re the No. 1 seed. They’re a good team. They still have great players over there. They’re still going to make runs, they’re still going to do their thing. It’s going to be a tough series."
But Carroll was a bit more bullish on the Hawks’ chances, even if he also was cautious.
"We’re in control of our own destiny," he said. "We’ve got Game 4 at our home. We’re up 2-1. But we’ve got to take it a game at a time. We don’t overlook nobody. We’ve been the underdogs. We’d rather stay the underdogs and just slide under the scene and keeping winning games."