INDIANAPOLIS — The Atlanta Hawks are ready to start mixing it up with Indiana.
They don’t have a choice.
After complaining about how the first playoff game was called, then getting chastised by their own coach for their poor effort in the loss, the Hawks spent two days assessing the damage and how to counter the Pacers’ tough, in-your-face brand of basketball. The simple solution: Punch back.
“I’ve made no quarrels about how I feel we played from a physicality standpoint,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “(The players) are in agreement. So we have to come out and be more of a presence from a physicality standpoint. Not to hurt anybody, but doing things harder.”
For the Hawks, Game 2 tonight isn’t just a chance to get even with the Pacers. It’s a brand new opportunity.
Stealing a win on the road in this first-round playoff series would send Atlanta home for Games 3 and 4 with that all-important split on the road, provide needed confidence and momentum and prove to the rest of the league that these refocused Hawks are far better than the sixth-seeded team that showed up for Sunday’s series-opening debacle.
Indiana has now won its past three against Atlanta, all at home, and Drew detected a bigger problem in Game 1.
While the Hawks spent much of the game worrying about the calls, or lack thereof, which led to a huge discrepancy at the free-throw line, Drew was more upset that his team didn’t play through the calls and got beat up inside and out.
He said the Hawks were “manhandled,” a term that generated a faint smile from Pacers coach Frank Vogel.
“I’d expect them to bring a great effort, but it gives me some pride because that’s how we want to play,” Vogel said. “We want to be the more physical team.”
Indiana was missing that element during the final two weeks of the regular season when it lost five of six games.
Paul George, who won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award on Tuesday, noted that the biggest change between that skid and the start of the playoffs was the way Indiana used its hands to defend without picking up silly fouls.
If they can be as effective locking up the Hawks again, the Pacers could head to Atlanta -- where they’ve lost 11 straight -- with their first 2-0 series lead since the 2004 Eastern Conference semifinals. They know this will be more of a struggle.
“They’ll make some adjustments and we’ll have to be ready for it,” said Pacers forward David West, who was diagnosed with a mild sprained left ankle during Sunday’s 107-90 win. “But it’s really all about us, in terms of how we come out, our focus and locking down the opportunities for them to knock down open 3s.”
Drew would rather see the Hawks match the Pacers’ intensity after watching his team get outrebounded 48-32 in Game 1 and called for 26 fouls as George continually attacked the basket.
What can the Hawks do?
They could go with bigger lineups, giving Johan Petro and Ivan Johnson more playing time. Petro’s presence also would give the Hawks another possible defender against Pacers center Roy Hibbert, too.
One potential concern for Atlanta is the effectiveness of forward Josh Smith. Atlanta’s top scorer (17.5 points) and second-leading rebounder (8.4) during the regular season managed only 15 points and eight rebounds in Game 1, primarily with George defending him, and Smith wound up spraining his right ankle late when he stepped on Devin Harris’ foot. Smith missed Monday’s practice, returned Tuesday and expects to be on the court Wednesday surrounded by teammates playing with a far grittier effort.
“They’re a long, physical team. Especially on the defensive end, we want to try to come up with the ball to create some fast break opportunities for ourselves,” Smith said. “So we’ve just got to keep it up, run the offense with some urgency and be able to come out in Game 2 and give a better effort.”
And match the Pacers, punch for punch.
“This is playoff time. There’s not anything we need to talk about daily. That’s just how it is,” Drew said. “You play solid, amped-up basketball for 48 minutes. We’re going to have to get to that point.”