ATLANTA — The oversized image of Jeff Teague sheepishly smiling and shrugging his shoulders played several times on Thursday on the large scoreboard that hovers over Philips Arena’s court — as it is likely to do countless more times on highlight shows across the country.
It was part of a video review of a game-changing sequence that occurred with 2:50 left in regulation and the Hawks leading the Indiana Pacers by six points as the shot clock neared zero. Teague was forced into a desperate running, over-the-shoulder shot over the Pacers’ 6-foot-9 Luis Scola as Teague’s momentum carried him out of bounds.
The improbable try went in, pushing the Hawks’ lead to nine — even though the review also revealed Teague had earlier stepped out of bounds, a play that was not reviewable. As a result, with a little luck, the Hawks seemingly long-shot odds to upset the Pacers, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, are looking stronger and stronger following Thursday’s 98-85 victory in Game 3.
Teague finished with game highs of 22 points and 10 assists to give the Hawks, the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, a 2-1 series lead with Game 4 looming here on Saturday.
"Unbelievable that it went in," said Teague of his reaction. "I thought it was going to be an air ball."
According to a statement provided by crew chief Tony Brothers, since Teague had stepped out of bounds several steps before he released the shot, the play was not reviewable. "For the purposes of this review, the official would look only at the position of the player’s feet at the moment they last touched the floor immediately prior to (or, if applicable, during) the release of the shot or the foul (as applicable)," the statement said.
The call produced an eye-rolling reaction after the game from Pacers forward David West, whose team is in danger of going down in flames.
"It’s a messed up rule," West said. " … That was just a tough play."
West affirmed that the Pacers remain confident enough to win the series but it does not look that way on the surface. Pacers star forward Paul George, who averaged 25.5 points in the first two games, was held scoreless at the half. He picked up two quick fouls — the Hawks said they were trying to be aggressive with him — and he had to sit on the bench for 11:43 of the first half. Pacers coach Frank Vogel said that threw off George’s rhythm. George finished with 12 points for the game on 3-of-11 shooting, mostly because of the defensive effort by Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll. (For his part, Carroll scored 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting.)
In addition, Pacers center Roy Hibbert continued his late-season downward spiral. The 7-2 Hibbert finished with four points and two rebounds in 19 minutes and Scola, as was the case in Game 2 when he scored 20 points, proved hot offensively, forcing Vogel to keep Scola in the game over Hibbert. Scola scored 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting in 20 minutes.
Vogel said he remained committed to Hibbert, although he said, "We’ll look at everything" going forward.
"We’re not going to quit on him," said Vogel of Hibbert. " … He’s our anchor. We won 56 games with him in the starting lineup."
What has proved shocking about the series is not so much that the Hawks are leading but the way they have done it. There’s been nothing fluky about it. Except for a bad third quarter in Game 2 — the Hawks led by 11 points in the second quarter of that game and by four at halftime — the Hawks have mostly controlled the series.
On Thursday, the Pacers’ leads were brief and rare. They held a one-point lead on two separate occasions, once late in the second quarter and the other early in the third. Otherwise, the Hawks were tied or led for the entirety of the game.
"We didn’t make shots but we still played with a lot of confidence because of our defense," said Hawks reserve center Elton Brand of holding Indiana to 37.6 percent shooting. "We played great defense. We held them to a 14-point quarter (in the second). With as much firepower as they have over there, that’s great defense for us."
In this series with things falling the Hawks’ way, they could take a commanding 3-1 lead on Saturday. Hawks forward Kyle Korver said the sell-out crowd of 18,124 was the best he has been a part of in his second season with the team and that it provided the Hawks with energy.
"It’s a great position to be in," said Korver, who was held to three points in Game 2 but scored 20 on Thursday in part by making 4-of-7 3-pointers. "We’d like to be up 3-0 but we’ll take 2-1. We have some more home games upcoming, which is great. But every game in the playoffs is its own monster and there’s going to be adjustments to be made. We might go 2-for-16 in a half again (on 3-pointers as they did on Thursday before going 10-for-18 in the second half), so you never know what’s going to happen.
"Obviously, we like where we’re at but we’ve got to stay hungry and we’re going to have to go out there and take two more games. They’re not going to give us two more games because we have two more home games. We have to go out there and take them."