The Atlanta Hawks are once again sitting right where they want to be. After Thursday's 98-85 win over the Indiana Pacers in Game 3, Atlanta leads 2-1 in the series with Game 4 to come Saturday afternoon at Philips Arena.
The Hawks did something on Thursday that is not quite the norm when it comes to the team. They won despite shooting less than 40 percent from the field and it was a consistent defensive effort that carried them throughout the game. That is something that has to make head coach Mike Budenholzer and his staff very happy at this point of the season.
"The defensive effort and the defensive activity is kind of the message we've been talking about coming down the stretch, and in the playoffs, it just becomes even more important," said Budenholzer. "I think, for our group to be that committed on the defensive end and win a game that was very physical is a credit to our group. I think it was good for our group to be at home. The energy and the fans; it makes a big difference. I think that helped feed us. We're just going to keep talking and keep working and trying to improve defensively and just keep competing."
Atlanta came into the game having gone just 2-11 on the season when shooting less than 40 percent so its not typical to see them grind out basketball games at the defensive end of the floor. However, you don't win basketball games without making big shots and they did there fair share of that in the second half.
The Hawks led 39-38 at the half despite making just 2-16 three point attempts. The first half resembled exactly how Indiana likes to play and many of Atlanta's attempts were rather rushed as the Hawks were struggling to properly space the floor.
"I think the threes, at halftime when we were 2-for-16, I don't know that we were getting as good of looks as we want to get," said Budenholzer. There were more opportunities maybe to drive it; penetrate and kick and get an even better look. In the second half, I think we played with a little bit more pace. I think we got some open looks in transition. Our group is confident when it comes to shooting. Even the 2-for-16 at halftime, they know we believe in it; they know it's part of how we want to play, but it starts with us attacking, collapsing the defense, moving the defense, moving the ball, and we want to shoot good threes. We don't want to just shoot threes."
The Hawks took note and as Jeff Teague started to attack the three pointers started to fall. Teague scored 15 of his 22 points in the second half and Atlanta knocked down 10-18 from beyond-the-arc. None bigger perhaps than a deep runner at the shot clock buzzer by Teague that put Atlanta up by nine with 2:49 to go and stymied another Pacers' rally.
Replay showed that Teague stepped out of bounds prior to launching the desperation heave but NBA Replay rules only allow for officials to look at whether or not a player was behind the three-point line on an attempt. Not whether they stepped out of bounds prior to the shot. The Pacers caught a similar break through a loophole in the replay system at the end of the first quarter when George Hill clearly interfered with a ball on the rim and tipped it in to end the quarter.
"Those plays happen. In the playoffs, there's a lot of energy and a lot of times the plays that you draw up don't work the way you want them to," said Kyle Korver about Teague's three. You improvise and sometimes you throw stuff up as the shot clock is running down and it goes in. I'm glad it happened for us and not for them."
Atlanta now has a golden opportunity to take a commanding lead in the series on Saturday and put Indiana's season in jeopardy. The Pacers clearly have problems and aren't the dominant team that we saw burst out of the gates during the regular season.
However, this Hawks team deserves a lot of credit. Atlanta crashed into the playoffs after an injury riddled second half of the season and very few expectations. Most pundits were writing that they didn't even belong in the postseason thanks to their sub .500 record. For them to have put themselves in this position is a testament to the competitive nature that Mike Budenholzer and his staff have been talking all season long.