Here are three observations following the Hawks’ 113-98 loss to Indiana on Wednesday in Game 2 of their first-round NBA playoff series:
1. Paul George continues to bedevil Hawks
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In the series opener, George killed the Hawks with free throws, making 17 of 18 and finished with a game-high 23 points, as the Hawks attempted to defend him with Kyle Korver.
In Game 2, coach Larry Drew first tried 6-foot-3 Devin Harris on the 6-8 George. This time, George killed the Hawks every which way he could from the field, making 11 of 21 attempts and finishing with a playoff career-high 27 points. George needed only seven free throws to accomplish that, making just four. He helped the Pacers get off to a hot start, scoring five of the team’s first 10 points. With 4:53 left in the first quarter, George’s pull-up jumper put Indiana up 17-15 and it never trailed for the rest of the game.
If the Hawks want to get back in the series when they return to Atlanta starting on Saturday for Game 3, they are going to have to find an answer for George.
It’s not as if they haven’t contained George in the past. In an 89-86 win over Indiana on Nov. 7, the Hawks held him to 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting. On Wednesday, Drew elected to keep the same starting lineup as he did in Game 1. Maybe starting DeShawn Stevenson is a move he needs to make.
2. Josh Smith’s foul trouble changed the complexion of the game
This one came as of a bit of a shock, as the Atlanta forward picked up his second foul of the game just 2:12 into the first quarter. That meant he had to sit for the rest of the quarter with Ivan Johnson replacing him.
While Johnson had a strong performance in Game 1, finishing with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting to go with five rebounds, it wasn’t meant to be on Wednesday. Johnson made 1 of 3 shots and picked up four fouls with only one rebound in 10 minutes.
It’s hard not to think of how the game might have been different if Smith had not picked up those two quick fouls. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Hawks trailed 88-76 and Smith had only played 12 minutes, but he was having a quality night, making 4 of 5 shots for nine points with two rebounds.
If Smith plays his usual 35 minutes per game, the game arguably is much different at that point. Instead, he played only 20 minutes and finished with 16 points, six rebounds and three assists.
Smith’s minutes total was further abbreviated by the fact that Drew decided to pull the starters once the Hawks got down by 22 with 4:30 left in regulation amid a miserable fourth quarter.
3. Atlanta’s technical difficulties didn’t help
The Hawks were whistled for three technical fouls all within the game’s first 27 minutes. By the time of the third on Johnson (after he picked up his fourth foul) with 9:12 left in the third quarter, the Hawks trailed by 12 points but had given three in the form of technical foul shots to the Pacers. Every point counts in the playoffs.
Before the series started, Drew talked about the need for the players to keep their composure when calls didn’t go their way. He said it again after Game 1. It might not be worth wasting his breath on at this point.
What was surprising about the technical fouls in Game 2 was who received them. Harris, an eight-year veteran who ostensibly should be one of the Hawks’ most poised players, received the first technical foul in the first quarter with 0.7 left in the quarter.
Al Horford, one of the Hawks’ leaders, earned the second with 8:23 left in the second quarter. Admittedly, the call on Horford was at best curious and at worst egregious. Jeff Pendergraph was called for fouling Horford, who was in the act of shooting. Pendergraph grabbed Horford’s shoulder and on Horford’s follow-through, he flailed with his arm that was opposite Pendergraph. Horford’s elbow flew out, but it was impossible for him to hit the Pacer with it and there was no contact whatsoever.
Nonetheless, the call stood. The problem wasn’t so much the call itself but the way Horford reacted wildly and needed to be restrained by his teammates. He is one of the team’s most mature and poised players so when the others see him losing his cool, it’s hard for them to keep theirs.
Perhaps a change of scenery will benefit the Hawks and allow cooler heads to prevail. It better. After falling down 0-2, Game 3 is a virtually a must-win.