The Indiana Pacers need Paul George to be at his absolute best during the playoffs for them to fulfill the potential many seen in them, of being the second best team in the East. In game 1 of the first round series with the Hawks he didn’t shoot very well, but still did everything else at the highest level, leading his team to a comfortable home win and a 1-0 lead in the series.
George was only 3-13 from the field, which isn’t something that’s too rare with him and his inconsistencies offensively. But it didn’t stop George from being aggressive, pushing and pushing his team towards the basket, where Josh Smith and Al Horford were simply undersized and outgunned in the paint. George got to the line 18 times, making 17 of his shots, and finishing with a triple double, only the second in franchise history in a postseason game, adding 11 rebounds and 12 assists.
There was also his defense, especially on anyone with the ball. The Hawks, losing 90-107, were only 4-11 with 11 points and three turnovers when George was the primary defender on a play. They simply had to work their way around him, but it didn’t go much better for the rest.
The Pacers showed that they don’t mind the fast pace the Hawks try to dictate, as long as it’s coming from them and they win the turnover battle (16-14, close but enough). They matches the Hawks in fast break points and transition, but were simply a lot more aggressive and successful when driving to the basket. The Hawks went to the line only 14 times while Indiana had 34 trips to shoot free throws, making 88.2% of their shots.
It wasn’t only George that enjoyed his finest playoff game. Lance Stephenson played meaningful minutes in the postseason for the first time in his career, finishing with 13 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals, as the Pacers looked like the fresher, stronger, better team. David West and Roy Hibbert also got some rest during the final week or so of the season, and looked like Frank Vogel giving his best players some relaxation time couldn’t have worked any better. West had 13 points and 9 rebounds, Hibbert finished with 16 points and 8 rebounds.
The talk of the game afterwards was about the free throws, and the hustle. The Hawks lost all the 50-50 plays and gave Indiana 15 offensive rebounds, five of them by Tyler Hansbrough, scoring 9 points off the bench, giving the Pacers the right kind of energy and effort in the fourth quarter when it looked like the Hawks were making some sort of comeback. Those four points possessions came too much for the Hawks to endure, eventually ruining their hopes of keeping the game at a single digit distance.
It’s been a home kind of playoffs so far, and also the series between the Pacers and the Hawks has gone that way this season, with the home team winning the game. The Hawks have an 11-game winning streak in Atlanta over the Pacers to build on, but with the two teams looking so different on so many levels, with the Pacers looking like the better one in each of them, it’s hard to see that streak lasting the series.