The Indiana Pacers, the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, exerted their dominance in Game 1 of their series against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, winning 107-90. Here are three observations from the game:
1. Paul George delivered in a big way
Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson has far greater worries on his mind after his team fell behind 1-0 in its own playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, but Paul George just stole his exclusivity in the Pacers’ postseason record book. By logging 23 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds against the Hawks, George became just the second player in franchise history to post a triple-double in the playoffs. Jackson, of course, was the last to pull off the feat, putting up 22 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists in a series-clinching Game 5 against the Knicks in 1998.
(For what it’s worth, the Pacers advanced to the Eastern Conference finals that season.)
George’s performance, instead of sending Indiana to the next round, helped set the tone for the seven-game set. Though the two teams split the regular-season series 2-2, Indiana looked like the superior (and healthier) team in the series opener. Much of that was due to George’s ability to take on the bulk of the play-making load, creating better opportunities for his teammates, notably big men Roy Hibbert (16 points) and David West (13 points).
The 22-year-old forward was at his best offensively when moving toward the rim, getting to the free throw line seemingly at will. He finished 17 of 18 from the stripe, a career high, and single-handedly shot more free throws than the entire Atlanta lineup combined.
“I’m really not trying to rely on the 3-point shot. I really want to be aggressive,” George said. “In the playoffs, that jump shot’s not going to be there so I had to learn early on how to get to the line.”
In what has proven to be a breakout season for the former Fresno State Bulldog, he looked like the series’ preeminent player in Game 1.
2. Indiana was the aggressor from the tip
Free throws and rebounding are pretty good places to start when trying to find out which team dictated a game’s action, especially in a physical playoff series. The Pacers won both Saturday. Handily.
Indiana shot 20 more free throws than the Hawks (34-14) — and made 23 more (30-7). Indiana out-rebounded Atlanta 48-32 as well, including 15 possession-creating offensive rebounds.
So regardless of the fact that the Hawks shot the ball better from the field, had four players score in double figures and were given quality bench minutes, the game was never truly competitive for the better portion of the second half. The Pacers led for all but the first six minutes and 34 seconds of the game, and never looked back. For evidence, the scoring breakdown by quarter:
“A team like that, you can’t let them be comfortable,” George said.
By forcing the issue, Indiana refused to let Atlanta find its comfort zone. Seven games makes for a long series, but it will be interesting to see if the Hawks can find “it” moving forward.
3. Josh Smith finished with a deceptive final line
The 6-foot-9 forward is talented enough that even when he plays below his potential he can post a final line — 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists — most NBA players would be proud of. But this was not a game Smith should hang his hat on.
There were bad decisions, bad shots and bad signals sprinkled throughout.
As always seems to be the case with Smith, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, shot selection was a key issue against the Pacers. In short, there were too many shots taken outside the paint, where he inflicts the majority of his damage on opposing defenses. (Smith shot 58 percent from the paint this season, compared to 29 percent from mid-range and 33 percent from 3-point range.)
Smith missed eight shots in the game. Seven of them came outside the paint, many of them forced in nature. Conversely, 10 of his 15 points came down low.
He finished 1 for 4 from 3-point range. (In fairness, Kyle Korver, one of the NBA’s best long-range shooters, finished 1 for 4 in this one-game sample as well.)
But, as mentioned above, the Pacers won the game by forcing the issue, taking it inside and getting to the free-throw line. Smith did none of those things Saturday. His game appeared to lack a definitive purpose and focus. And when he finally did get to the line with 4:05 remaining in the game, he missed both free throws.
All of that needs to change — and fast — if Atlanta is going to win this series.