For 48 minutes on Saturday night, the Atlanta Hawks were significantly better than the Indiana Pacers. This outcome seemed to be miles away when the two teams left the floor on Wednesday night in Indianapolis, but the “good” Hawks team showed up for game three, and with a little bit of help from the Pacers (we’ll get there), this is a series again.
In the midst of the celebration, many heroes emerged from the game three victory. First of all, Al Horford was the best player in the arena, scoring 26 points (on 12-20 FG) and grabbing 16 big-time rebounds to lead the way for the Hawks. It would be difficult to overstate Horford’s impact on this game (read: massive), but since it is almost “old hat” at this point to discuss his greatness (and it would be SO easy to bring his dominance of Tyler Hansborough to light), we’ll keep going down the list.
In addition to Horford, the Hawks were able to (nearly) match the Pacers on the glass for the first time in the series. Atlanta grabbed 48 rebounds (including 13 offensive rebounds) to narrow their rebounding margin to just 4 (as Indy grabbed 52), and as a result, the Hawks were able to attempt more field goals than Indiana for the night. Four Hawks grabbed 6+ rebounds (Smith, Ivan Johnson, and Jeff Teague in addition to Horford), and the return of “energy” (copyright Larry Drew) was nice to see on the glass.
With all of that said, however, the biggest key to victory in game three was simple. The Atlanta Hawks played defense. It seems to be an alarmingly simple concept, but a quick look at the numbers tells the story. In the first two games of the series, the Pacers shot 45% and 47% from the field respectively. That isn’t too frightening for the opposing defense, but they also shot 37% and 40% from three-point land in each game and turned the ball over 14-or-less times in both contests. For a less-than-stellar offensive team (to be kind), these numbers are pretty solid, and when added to the rebounding debacle, it was pretty easy for Indiana to score. Then, game three happened.
Indiana shot just 27% from the field (a mind-boggling 22 for 81), 16% from the three-point arc (4 for 25), and committed 22 turnovers that resulted in 24 points for Atlanta. There is no denying that some of this work was simply a by-product of bad offense from Indiana, but the Hawks were swarming for the majority of the night and open shooters/passing lanes were hard to come by for the Pacers.
It is easy to recognize defense as the key to this victory, as the numbers are so impressive that they are impossible to ignore. However, a lot of praise has been reaped on the Hawks “response” in game three, and defense seems to be somewhere down the list of the reasons being peddled. One thing is for sure, the defensive effort seen in Philips Arena on Saturday night is replicable. It may not lead to 27% shooting from the Pacers again (it very likely won’t), but for the Hawks to compete in this series for the next four games, they will need the same level of defensive intensity and execution that we saw in game three.