ATLANTA — Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll is a self-described junkyard dog.
So forgive him if he was using metaphors in reference to the Hawks’ need to close out their series with Indiana, the Eastern Conference’s top seed, in Game 6 on Thursday — metaphors relating to fighting and animals and both at the same time.
"My uncle always told me, ‘If you see me in a fight with a bear,’" he said, "’you better help that bear.’"
We’ll assume that the Pacers, based on their seed (if not their play), are the bear.
But, on a more serious note, Carroll knows it will not be easy to eliminate the Pacers and advance to the second round to take on the Washington Wizards.
"They’re going to come out fighting and scratching," Carroll said. "We’re going to come out fighting and scratching. It’s going to be the first one who smells blood. I think we’re going to come out there and be aggressive. I think Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap, they’re our head and if they’re going, we’re going. It’s a good game for us to win."
"We have blue collar guys…guys who don't get the recognition they deserve." – @DeMarreCarroll1 on this team
Certainly, the Hawks have demonstrated a mental toughness in this series that the Pacers — not to mention the Hawks of more recent playoff vintage — have not. Winning two games on the road has illustrated that. So has rebounding from a squandered opportunity in Game 4 in which the Hawks led late at home and lost before taking Game 5. In that game, the Hawks led by as much as 30 at Indiana but the Pacers gave the Hawks a scare, cutting the lead to nine with 4:04 left in regulation.
Millsap said that putting teams away has been a topic of conversation among the Hawks.
"We’ve been talking about it the past few weeks, when we have a team down just go ahead and put them away and it came back on us the other night," he said. "We had them down 30. We just couldn’t put the fork in them, finish them so, as a group, we’re trying to get better at that. It starts with our leaders."
The Hawks spent much of Wednesday’s media session addressing their own play. While the Pacers have become a fixation in the minds of the national media for their continued late-season implosion, the Hawks said they were not thinking about the Pacers at all. Coach Mike Budenholzer was asked if he thought the Pacers, in desperation, might break out some new tactics that the Hawks were not ready for. (For the first time in the series in Game 5, the Pacers used 6-foot-9 forward Chris Copeland, and he was effective in making 2-of-6 3-pointers.) For his part, Hawks forward Kyle Korver noted that while television cameras might focus on the opposing bench to show fans the unhappy reactions on the bench, players are too locked in to what’s going on on the court to notice.
In terms of focusing on themselves, the Hawks would help themselves with a better effort from point guard Jeff Teague, who has not been great the past two games. Teague scored 12 points on 3-of-8 shooting and had three turnovers to four assists in Game 5. In Game 4, a Hawks loss, Teague had 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting and had seven assists and four turnovers, some of which proved costly late.
"I’ve been OK," Teague said. "I feel like I could play better. We’re in the playoffs here. They make adjustments. We make adjustments. We just have to continue to keep adjusting, do whatever we have to get a win."
Budenholzer also was asked about Teague, who dominated Game 1 with 28 points.
"I think a little bit, just referencing all year, we’ve had different guys step up," the first-year head coach said. "There’s got to be some confidence that’s been built up. Some nights Kyle has a big night. Some nights Paul has a big night. DeMarre steps up and I think we want to be a group that depends on each other and isn’t just dependent on one guy or one big game but Jeff is our engine. For him to — I don’t even know how I’d characterize his game — but if we can get other guys stepping up and participating and have success, it’s a positive."
The biggest positive on Thursday at Philips would be a Hawks win, which would greatly advance Budenholzer’s building project in his first year. Perhaps the biggest factor in their favor is that mental toughness that the Hawks have shown throughout the series. As Carroll said, they have to be more fearsome than the bear.
"Close out games are difficult," Budenholzer said. "Attention to detail, any playoff game is difficult. Our guys will need to have the appropriate mental toughness and discipline and all those things. You need that in the first game and you need it when you’re ahead and down and at all times."â