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For Mack, risk starts to pay off

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When Shelvin Mack declared early for the NBA Draft in 2011, it revealed two truths about the former Butler University star.

He’s not afraid of risks, and he’s determined to earn a living in the NBA.

So far, the risk has paid off.

Although the road to a steady NBA paycheck has been arduous and circuitous, it has led to a happy home with the Atlanta Hawks, who are positioned to bounce Mack’s hometown team — the Indiana Pacers — out of the playoffs.

Signed to a pair of 10-day contracts by Atlanta in March of last season after a pair of stints in the NBA’s D-League, Mack is winding down his first full campaign with the Hawks. A steady backup all year, he has been instrumental in Atlanta’s bid to upset the heavily favored Pacers in the first round of the postseason.

Take Monday’s Game 5, for example.

Displaying the same high energy, skills and determination that characterized his two seasons at Butler, Mack scored a team-high 20 points to help eighth-seeded Atlanta stun the top-seeded Pacers 107-97 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse and take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series.

Game 6 is tonight in Atlanta, where the Hawks — who have twice wrested homecourt advantage from Indiana — can close the series.

“We have a lot of confidence, but as you can see the home team has lost most of the games in this series,” said Mack, referring to Atlanta’s Game 4 loss at home. “So we want to go home, come out and play hard and compete.”

Above all qualities, Mack’s ability to compete is arguably his chief asset. It helped launch Butler to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA championship game, and it gave him the confidence to leave college a year early and pursue an NBA career.

He did so with no guarantees of success.

Under the NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement, players drafted in the first round — whether they make the final roster or not — receive guaranteed money. Players drafted in the second round do not. They have to make the team to get paid.

A projected second-round draft choice in 2011, that’s precisely where Mack went.

Selected 34th overall by the Washington Wizards, the pressure was immediate for Mack to do the unlikely: make an NBA roster as a second-round pick.

He wound up doing the unlikely, surviving the final training camp cuts and was in a Wizards’ uniform for the season-opener. He would appear in 64 games before being waived just before the start of the 2012-13 season, setting in motion a flurry of D-League stints with the Maine Red Claws and 10-day contracts with various teams, including the Philadelphia 76ers, before finding steady work with the Hawks.

This year, one in which rebuilding Atlanta wasn’t expected to make the playoffs, Mack appeared in 73 regular-season games, including 11 starts, with per-game averages of 7.5 points, 3.7 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 20.4 minutes.

In the playoffs, he’s played in all five games with averages of 8.4 points, 3.4 assists, 2.0 rebounds and 17 minutes. The highlight was Game 5, when he — with fellow backup Mike Scott — provided a second-quarter spark that blew the game open for the Hawks.

Atlanta outscored the Pacers 41-19 in the period and went on to lead by as many as 30 in the second half.

Scott finished with 17 points on 5-of-6 shooting from 3-point range. Mack was 5 of 9 from the field, including 2 of 4 behind the arc, and was 8 of 10 from the free-throw line.

He also had three rebounds, two steals and a game-high five assists in addition to his career-playoff-high 20 points.

“Obviously, having guys come off the bench, Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack in the first half, was very good,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said. “If we keep playing together, keep trusting each other defensively and let that carry over to the offensive end, obviously that’s what we’re working on.”

Atlanta’s high-level bench play not only set the tone and paved the way for a critical win, it reinstilled assurance in the Hawks that the series is theirs for the taking.

“We know we can play with this team,” Scott said. “We know they’re a great team, especially at home with great players and a great coach, but we believe in ourselves.”

Mack agrees.

“We just came out and competed at a high level,” he said. “And when we do that, we’re kind of a tough team to beat.”

Although his path to the NBA has been anything but smooth, Mack doesn’t reflect on how he got where he is. His focus is on the here and now. At hand is a rare but golden opportunity to knock a No. 1 seed out of the playoffs. He wants to continue doing his part to make it happen.

Self-reflection can wait.

“I’m not really worried about that right now,” Mack said. “I’m just trying to improve throughout the year. The season’s not over, so just get some rest and try to come out and compete at a high level (tonight).”

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