Even with the late-season struggles of the Indiana Pacers, virtually no one was giving the Atlanta Hawks a legitimate chance to take game one and control of the series, but that is exactly what the road team did on Saturday night. The Hawks were aggressive and productive for the great majority of 48 minutes, and in the end, they emerged from the opener as the victors by a final margin of 101-93.
In the opening moments, it looked to be a bit ominous for the Hawks, as David West (on a dunk) and Roy Hibbert (on a left-handed hook) pulsed Indiana to a quick, 4-0 advantage. It wouldn't take long, though, for the Hawks to respond, as Atlanta turned a 7-2 deficit into an 18-9 advantage on the back of an impressive 16-2 spurt. Paul Millsap connected on a 4-point play in the midst of the run, and the Hawks were creating quality looks offensively thanks to a combination of penetration and ball movement.
The glass was an early point of emphasis for the Hawks as well, and it helped them grab a 6-point first quarter lead despite shooting "just" 45% from the floor in the first 12 minutes. Atlanta grabbed 12 of the first 16 available rebounds in the game, and finished the 1st quarter with a 15-7 advantage on the glass. The only black mark against the Hawks in the first was the buzzer-beating three by CJ Watson (continuing a bizarre streak of such a play against Atlanta), but unfortunately, that wasn't the end of the push from the Pacers.
Indy began the second quarter on the back of Lance Stephenson, and the Pacers swingman flashed to a 6-0 personal run that completed an 11-2 overall spurt (including the Watson three) to tie the game at 30 apiece. From there, the two teams played dead-even basketball, as they traded (small) runs throughout the remainder of the half, capped by a Kyle Korver tip-in (after a missed fast break lay-up by Jeff Teague) at the buzzer to even the score at 50-50 at the break.
It was a bit of an off half from a statistical perspective, as the Hawks parlayed their early advantage on the glass to a 26-18 margin that included 7 offensive boards. On the flip side, though, the Pacers shot 48% from the floor and 4-for-7 (57%) from 3-point range, and that efficiency was able to make up for the unexpected loss in rebounding for one of the league's best teams in that area. Still, Paul George (14 first half points) and Lance Stephenson (11 first half points) had it cooking at various points of the half, and escaping with a tie score, even in the midst of a 6-for-18 shooting performance from three, could be construed as a victory.
Fireworks began exploding out of the halftime break, and they didn't wait long. Paul Millsap took the ball to the rim for a 3-point play on the opening possession, and after a DeMarre Carroll three and a Jeff Teague jumper, the Hawks began with an 8-0 run to grab the early advantage. Following that, Pero Antic and Indiana's David West got into a bit of a mini-scuffle with 7:56 on the clock and the Hawks leading by only 4, and from there, things went violently in Atlanta's favor, beginning with Pero's unwillingness to back down.
After a David West lay-up to cut the lead to two, Jeff Teague unleashed the full arsenal on the Pacers. Teague scored 9 consecutive points to cap an 11-0 run that gave the Hawks a 71-58 lead with 4:46 to go in the 3rd, and including that push, Atlanta sprinted to a 20-4 spurt that was capped by a Paul Millsap three that saw the lead rise to 18 points. Teague was electric throughout the push, famously losing Evan Turner on a wicked crossover before hitting a three, and he finished with 13 in the period despite sitting for the final 2 minutes and 12 seconds.
Indiana scored only 14 points in the third quarter (to 30 from the Hawks), and on the plus side for the good guys, that impotence continued in the final period. Atlanta led by as many as 20 during the final period, and the advantage never dipped below 8 (which was in absolute garbage time) on the way to the final, stunning margin. It was a surreal scene down the stretch as Pacers fans streamed to the exits, but this was virtually the dream scenario for Atlanta fans.
In coordination with virtually all of our preview coverage, the Atlanta Hawks go as Jeff Teague goes, and on this night, he was utterly tremendous. The point guard finished with 28 points on 9 for 19 shooting (and 9 for 10 from the line) to go along with 5 assists, and when he was attacking the rim, the offense was flowing in a unique way. Obviously, this is a one-game sample size, but the best chance for the Hawks in the series is to get this version of Teague on a nightly basis, and the aggression he displayed was telling.
Paul Millsap wasn't bad himself with 25 points (7-17 FG, 9-11 FT) and 8 rebounds, while Kyle Korver (12 points despite a relatively rough shooting night) and DeMarre Carroll (double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds plus top-flight defense) were tremendous in their time on the floor. The bench wasn't nearly as effective as the starting unit (who saw double-digits to the positive in the single game plus-minus), but Shelvin Mack hit some enormous shots and Lou Williams provided solid contributions when he wasn't being isolated by Lance Stephenson on the other end.
As a team, the Hawks didn't need a lights-out shooting night to win, and that is incredibly encouraging. Pero Antic (who helped to neutralize Indy's big men with 8 points and 2 threes) was huge as anticipated, but Atlanta shot only 11 of 30 from 3-point distance, and while that is more than respectable, it is far from dominant. Furthermore, the Hawks generated only 13 (!) assists on their 33 field goals, and it was the break-even nature of the rebounding margin and the near flawless execution by guys like Teague that allowed the win to take place.
Now, the pundits will be aware of the Hawks in a brand new way, but the team still has an uphill climb against an opponent who was justifiably favored in the series. The two teams resume their battle on Tuesday night, but until then, it is back to the drawing board for the Pacers and a new infusion of confidence and life for Atlanta's bunch. Stay tuned.