Atlanta's Pero Antic (16 points) was stellar on both ends of the floor Wednesday, posting a plus-20 ratio and limiting Pacers center Roy Hibbert to two points (on 1 of 8 shooting).
ATLANTA — It’s not the Hawks’ fault that, prior to Wednesday’s slate of NBA games, 15 teams from the Eastern Conference were saddled with woeful, losing records.
But Atlanta can shoulder some of the blame for Indiana’s sluggish play on this night, as the Hawks outraced, outhustled and outperformed the Pacers at Philips Arena, 97-87.
To say the Hawks were primed for their first encounter with the NBA’s best club, record-wise (28-6 heading into Wednesday), would be a vast understatement. After dropping four of five games since Dec. 29 — including a desultory loss to the injury-ravaged Nets on Monday — Atlanta started fast and seldom let up in securing its 19th victory of the season.
"I think the defense fueled our offense. I think the defense fueled our (overall) energy," said Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer in the post-game media scrum. "There was a commitment on the defense that spilled over to the offense. … There’s just an energy that you get from playing good defense."
Atlanta sprinted to a 12-0 lead in the opening four minutes, thanks to an eight-point spurt from center Pero Antic. During his prodigious run, Antic buried back-to-back triples, quickly clinching his fourth consecutive outing of multiple three-pointers.
(As a point of reference, Antic had not hit more than two treys in a game for November or December.)
The Hawks were consistent and thorough in their first-half drubbing of the Pacers, posting 25 and 24 points for the quarters and maintaining double-digit leads after the first six minutes, minus a few possessions in the second stanza.
In fact, at the break, all nine Hawks (rotation-wise) had positive plus/minus ratios against the Pacers, with each Atlanta starter netting a double-figure differential.
But that’s what happens when savvy, selfless teams push the tempo at every plausible opportunity and share the ball in half-court settings.
"Our competitive spirit was excellent, and it showed on the defensive end — one of our best defensive games," said Budenholzer, whose club held Indiana to 40 percent shooting from the field and only seven second-chance points.
The offense functioned at a proficient level, as well: Of Atlanta’s 20 field goals for the opening half, the club had dished out 15 assists.
Prior to every home tipoff, Korver undergoes a series of exhaustive shooting and agility drills, flying off a variety of high/low screens at game intensity, before firing off jumper after jumper.
As a form of rest, Korver then invokes a repetition game of spot shooting from the beyond the arc — a process that’s eerily similar to the Three-Point Contest during the NBA’s All-Star Weekend. During Wednesday’s drill work, with a practice defender contesting nearly every shot, Korver made six of seven shots from one baseline … and then six of seven from the other.
As such, the Hawks had little trouble posting their 12th straight regular-season home victory against the Pacers, a streak that dates back to December 2006.
At the forefront, Korver (17 points), guard Jeff Teague (15 points, six assists, five boards) and Antic (16 points, four rebounds, plus-20 ratio) led the victory charge. But DeMarre Carroll (11 points, four rebounds, four assists, three steals) and reserve Mike Scott (15 points) were superb in their secondary roles.
Budenholzer even singled out Carroll for his highly effective work on the defensive end, setting the tempo for a complete effort. Only Paul George (28 points, 12 rebounds) enjoyed a monster offensive night for Indy.
On the flip side, the Pacers could barely keep the Hawks under 50 percent shooting for the first three quarters. They also had trouble defending the dribble penetration, citing multiple aggressors.
Oh sure, he has the requisite size, brawn and athleticism to defend NBA big men — like Indy’s Roy Hibbert (1 for 8 shooting for the night) — but Antic’s perimeter skill set resembles that of a small forward … or a stretch-4.
How else to explain his penchant for driving, slashing and ultimately dishing around the baseline, or the previously mentioned emergence as a dead-eye shooter from beyond the arc?
"(Pero) played great tonight," said Teague, whose Hawks have held the opposition to less than 100 points 17 times this year (13 wins). "He stretched the floor. He shot the basketball (well) and then he competeed on the defensive end. He made it tough for Hibbert (all night), and that’s what we needed."
Put it all together, and perhaps the Hawks won’t be in dire straits during Al Horford’s injury absence from the team (torn pectoral muscle).
Of equal importance, perhaps Atlanta has stumbled onto a notable complementary piece in the frontcourt … once Horford returns for the playoffs.
Speaking of which, the Hawks (19-17) are in that surreal limbo area of trailing the Heat by a large margin in the Southeast Division but owning a nice cushion over every other conference team (excluding Indiana), an honor that includes the Atlantic-leading Raptors (16-17 heading into Wednesday).
At this point, it’s far too early to project how many wins Atlanta will need to clinch a home series in the first round of the playoffs. But then again, it might not require more than 40 or 42 to pull off the feat.
Once again, the Hawks shouldn’t have to apologize for the other Eastern squads setting the bar so low.