ATLANTA — The Hawks looked like cannon fodder in the first two games of their first-round series with the Indiana Pacers, a juicy candidate for a sweep.
For those who can’t figure out the Jekyll-and-Hyde Hawks of the last few seasons — they dominated the Pacers 90-69 on Saturday night in Game 3 — there’s a key factor worth keeping in mind, particularly in the postseason.
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The Hawks are a completely different team at Philips Arena, especially in the first round. The victory upped the Hawks’ record at home in the first round to 15-3 during their current run of six consecutive playoff appearances.
Overall, they are 16-9 at home during the last six postseasons, and that includes back-to-back playoffs sweeps in the second round in 2009 and 2010 at the hands of Cleveland and Orlando. An alternative explanation is that Indiana is simply terrible at Philips; they’ve lost 12 straight now, including the regular season, dating to Dec. 22, 2006.
“I mean, I guess you play with a whole lot more energy,” said point guard Jeff Teague, who finished with 13 points, six rebounds and five assists. “The crowd’s behind you. When you make that run or hit that big 3, the gym goes bananas and that energy just shoots through your whole body and makes you want to play that little bit harder, makes you want to go after that rebound. It’s always good.”
If the Hawks wound up looking like world beaters in Game 3, it didn’t start out that way. They looked like they might go down meekly in the opening minutes, falling behind 8-1 with 9:34 left in the first quarter on Paul George’s put-back dunk.
Then Hawks coach Larry Drew called timeout and woke up his team.
“We just picked it up,” said Al Horford, who posted game highs in points (26) and rebounds (16). “It was one of those things where coach had to kind of shake us up, get us going. We just turned the energy level up. I think the crowd was a big part in that. They got us going after that timeout.”
Said Josh Smith: “Home-court advantage in the playoffs is definitely big. The momentum that we had during the whole entire game was definitely beneficial for the ball club.”
After that timeout, Johan Petro got the Hawks going. Petro, who made his first appearance of the series in the starting lineup, as Drew elected to go with a bigger lineup, started the Hawks off with a dunk. From there, the Hawks went on a 26-6 run to end the quarter. Teague fueled the surge by making three of four shots in the period for six points with two assists.
The dominance continued in the second quarter with the Hawks expanding their lead to as large as 26 with 2:05 left on Smith’s dunk. At halftime, the lead stood at 54-30, rendering the second half mostly irrelevant. The 30 points in the half marked a franchise playoff record for a Hawks’ opponent.
After games in which the Hawks allowed 107 and 113 points, respectively, they suddenly found their defensive game. All that hustle, all those loose balls and rebounds that were going to Indiana — the ones that Drew bemoaned in the first two games — suddenly started going the Hawks’ way.
In holding Indiana to 14 points in the first quarter, that total represented the second smallest in franchise postseason history for a quarter. Dominated on the boards in the first two games, the Hawks out-rebounded Indiana 27-22 in the first half — though the Pacers out-rebounded the Hawks for the game, 52-48.
“I believe in my heart that this home court and coming home and getting off to a fast start, I know the crowd was very instrumental in the way our guys played tonight,” Drew said. “They played with a lot of energy. You could see they were amped up … Being at home, that’s a tremendous boost for us. I know our guys really fed off the crowd, really played some inspired basketball.”
One play in the second quarter was indicative of how much more aggressively the Hawks played. Indiana’s David West earned a Flagrant 1 foul for knocking Horford to the floor from behind on a fast break with 6:55 left before halftime. Horford said he didn’t think the play was dirty but Teague, giving up six inches, bumped West, picking up a technical and setting off some pushing and shoving.
It might not have been the smartest move by Teague, but it showed spunk — something the Hawks conspicuously lacked in the first two games. Horford said he was unaware of what happened as he lay prone on the floor, but later he asked Teague if he was the one who got involved with West. Horford said Teague responded “in this cool way” that, indeed, he was.
“I was happy, I was proud,” Horford said. “He had my back out there.”
Hawks fans were so jubilant — and perhaps blasé by the margin of the blowout — that they began a hearty human wave midway through the third quarter. What a difference from Indiana.
Devin Harris is in his eighth year in the NBA, but his first with the Hawks. He said the Hawks aren’t much different than most other teams in the postseason.
“I don’t know, I haven’t been part of the six-year run, but the playoff teams I’ve been on, it’s comfort level at home,” Harris said. “It’s hard to win on the road, especially in the playoffs. You don’t see a lot of teams doing it. With this team in particular, we’ve been comfortable at home all year long.”
In their mental approach, Drew said he tried not to get the Hawks to think about anything other than this game. Now they have a chance to even the series on Monday. If they can do that, suddenly the series will seem winnable.
The only problem is that the Pacers are the higher seed. The Hawks can win all three games at Philips, but if they want to advance, they’re going to have to play much better on the road.