For the first time in a long time, the Indiana Pacers did something that seemed to catch almost everyone — including themselves — off-guard.
They had fun, specifically in the second half of Tuesday night’s playoff game against the Atlanta Hawks.
Trailing 52-48 at halftime, the Pacers reversed their fortunes by reverting to a tried and true method: Selfless offense, collective defense and just the right touch of flash and flair, for good measure.
By the time they turned the halftime deficit into a 79-65 lead, courtesy a Paul George 3-pointer to end the third quarter, the Pacers high-fived, hugged and celebrated in a scene reminiscent of happier pre-All-Star break times.
Even the sellout Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd joined in, rising to its feet and celebrating right along with the Pacers, who carried the momentum through to a 101-85 rout of Atlanta in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series.
For a night, all was right again with the Pacers, who recaptured their old chemistry just in time to even the best-of-seven series at 1-1.
“We are at our best when everyone is smiling and everyone is playing for each other and just being aggressive out there,” said point guard George Hill, who finished with 15 points after a scoreless first half. “I could sense that (Tuesday) was one of those fun, aggressive nights.”
George sensed the same thing, especially after his 3-pointer at the end of the third period caused a scene that resembled a championship celebration. Roy Hibbert, who was seated on the bench, ran the length of the floor to embrace George. Teammates followed suit. Even coach Frank Vogel, whose job security has been questioned, beamed and exchanged a few fist-bumps as the fieldhouse rocked and rolled.
If the celebration was a bit premature, the Pacers didn’t care. They needed something, anything, to put their recent struggles behind and regain control of a series that is still very much unsettled.
“We’re together, we’re together,” said George, who — for a night — again resembled an MVP candidate with 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals and a blocked shot. “If that’s what it took for everyone to understand how close this team is, that’s what it was.
“We put our print on (Tuesday’s) game in the third quarter, which (was like the team did) playing November, December and January basketball. We got back to that.”
The question now is, can they continue it?
Games 3 and 4 are in Atlanta, where the top-seeded Pacers have traditionally struggled. Worse still, home-court advantage now belongs to the eighth-seeded Hawks, who wrested it from Indiana with a resounding 101-93 Game 1 win at Bankers Life.
Atlanta did what it had to by stealing a game. Now, the Pacers have to do the same to salvage the series.
Their first chance is tonight in Game 3. Game 4 is Saturday.
“We just have to continue to do the same thing we did (Tuesday) and also bring that energy and effort,” Hill said. “On the defensive end we were communicating and things like that.
“That was the thing, just energy and effort.”
That, and a conspicuous lift from the bench.
Power forward Luis Scola had 20 points and seven rebounds. C.J. Watson added 10 points and five rebounds. Center Ian Mahinmi had only one point and no rebounds but was an imposing defensive presence throughout.
But as encouraging as all of the above was, all is still not as it was when the Pacers were the NBA’s best team during the first two-thirds of the season.
Hibbert, whose play has dipped dramatically since the All-Star break, continues to flounder. The 7-foot-2 center was 1 of 7 from the field and had only four rebounds and no blocked shots in Game 2.
And Lance Stephenson, who reportedly got into a fight during last Friday’s practice with teammate Evan Turner, had only seven points and, after being taken out of the game in the second half, stood away from teammates for several minutes before taking a seat on the bench.
Although Game 2’s effort was encouraging, the Pacers will need several more just like it regain control of the series.
“I believe our the approach that we had as a team, and also I include myself in that, was different,” said Scola, who was a difference-maker Tuesday. “We played with more energy and played harder.
“That’s what happens when you play harder.”