The eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks have led by double-digits in every game of their playoff series with Indiana, putting the top-seeded Pacers on the brink of elimination heading into Game 6 Thursday night.
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If anything, Indiana is fortunate to still be alive. If not for a dominant quarter in Game 2 and a tight victory in Game 5, the Pacers would already be starting their summer vacation.
As it is, the Hawks have a chance to wrap things up on their home court after a 107-97 victory on Monday.
”This gives us a lot of confidence, but in this series the home team has lost the majority of the games,” said Shelvin Mack, one of the little-known players coming up big for the Hawks. ”They’re a great team. They’re going to come out and play really hard, their season is on the line. We have to be prepared to come out and compete at a high level.”
With 72 hours between games, coach Mike Budenholzer gave his players Tuesday off. He’s intent on keeping his team fresh, with most of the work during the extensive down time occurring in the film room.
So far, the rookie coach has made all the right moves, giving extended playing time to Mack and Mike Scott while exposing every weakness of a Pacers team that looked vulnerable coming into the playoffs, despite winning more games than any team in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta regained control of the series with a second-quarter barrage that totally stunned the fans in Indianapolis. Spreading the court as they’ve done so effectively against the lumbering Pacers, the Hawks outscored the Indiana 41-19 with a barrage of 3-pointers, including five from Scott.
Mack knocked down a couple of 3s and finished as the Hawks’ top scorer with 20 points, making some crucial free throws down the stretch to fend off a furious rally by the Pacers, who whittled a 30-point deficit into single figures. According to STATS, Atlanta became only the third No. 8 seed in NBA history to win two road games against a No. 1 seed.
”We can play with this team,” Scott said, stating what is now painfully obvious to the Pacers. ”They’re a great team, especially at home, great players, great coach, but we have a belief in ourselves as well. Mack made some shots, I made some shots, Kyle (Korver) made some good shots. We were able to play together and at a good pace.”
The run-at-every-chance Hawks are beating the Pacers even with their top player watching from the bench. Center Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle in late December, knocking him out for the rest of the season. Atlanta now goes with a lineup that has perhaps two players – All-Star forward Paul Millsap and point guard Jeff Teague – who could start for most other teams in the league.
Small forward DeMarre Carroll has been waived twice and is on his fifth NBA team. Center Pero Antic is a 31-year-old rookie whose previous professional experience was entirely in Europe. Korver is one of the NBA’s most accurate 3-point shooters, but he was always viewed as more of a role player until being dealt to the Hawks in 2012.
Off the bench, the Hawks are relying heavily on Mack, who was signed out of the D-League late last season; Scott, a second-round pick in 2012; and 35-year-old Elton Brand, clearly on the down side of his career.
Somehow with this bunch, the Hawks are on the cusp of advancing to the second round of the playoffs, more than a little ticked that all the national attention is on Indiana’s problems rather than Atlanta’s success.
With one more win, the Hawks can put to rest all discussion about the Pacers. They already let Indiana off the hook in Game 4 at Philips Arena, squandering a 10-point lead and a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. Atlanta failed to make a field goal in the final 4 1/2 minutes of a 101-98 loss, with Antic missing a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would’ve forced overtime.
”Every game has gone back and forth,” Korver said. ”There’s hasn’t been a team that’s won two in a row. It just keeps going back and forth and we have to try to end that streak.”
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AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.