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Pacers’ funk deepens after Game 1 setback

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Entering Game 1, some wondered if the No. 8 seed had a chance. Headed toward Game 2, a different question comes to mind: Can the No. 8 seed sweep?

The Indiana Pacers began the NBA Playoffs on Saturday night with a case to restate. All they did was reinforce the notion that has lingered for the past two weeks — the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, as strange as it sounds, are superior to the team that was for much of the season the NBA’s finest.

Actually, the Pacers’ “malaise” has lasted for a couple months. And Saturday night’s 101-93 loss to the Hawks confirmed that Indiana is a lost team searching for answers.

The No. 8 seed didn’t just steal Game 1. The Hawks figuratively broke down the door and sprayed bright-red graffiti all over gold-embroidered Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They embarrassed the Pacers in a way good teams aren’t supposed to be embarrassed in the playoffs. The Hawks outhustled Indiana and shot better.

The proud Pacers, who reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season and had clear designs on a championship this year, are in real danger of elimination by a team missing its best player. Yes, the Hawks still have to beat Indiana three more times to advance, but nothing that happened in Game 1 suggested that the Pacers were any closer to figuring things out than in that epic regular-season thrashing the Hawks administered on this floor only 15

days ago.

The Hawks didn’t lead 55-23 at the halftime this night — actually, the score was tied at 50 — but the precision of this second-half dissection was, for the folks in Hoosier land, even more troubling. The Pacers had two weeks to go to school on that April 6 game, and it availed them not at all. They still got rolled. Roy Hibbert continues to be no factor, and that might be the biggest problem Indiana has at this point.

Since March 1, the Pacers have lost 14 of 26 games. Two victories during that span came when head coach Frank Vogel played reserves in an effort to rest starters.

Incidentally, the score on that April 6 night: Hawks 107, Pacers 88.

Given all that has happened this season, what with Al Horford getting hurt and Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver missing time and the Hawks nearly falling off the playoff grid before righting themselves, everyone forgets that this is head coach Mike Budenholzer’s first season with these players, many of whom are themselves new. The Hawks infuriated some purists by insisting they weren’t spending much time watching the standings as the season wound down — they were more concerned about building a system, they said — but it’s fair to say the system is now in place and, sure enough, it’s working.

Before Saturday night’s game, Budenholzer said: “We want a lot of ball movement, a lot of player movement and a lot of pace.” He also said: “We want the rim (meaning a layup) or a 3.”

That’s what they got in Game 1. Half of their first-quarter shots were 3-point tries, which forced the Pacers again to chase. The Pacers, especially the ponderous Hibbert, aren’t good at chasing. The Hawks led by nine in the first quarter only to fall into a tie by the half, but even then they had the game going their way. Indiana’s prized defense hadn’t been allowed to claim a toehold, and the Pacers won’t beat many teams by simply outscoring them.

The third quarter was a clinic. The Hawks scored 30 points, 14 of them by the Indy product Jeff Teague, who chased first George Hill and then C.J. Watson to the bench. By making the Pacers spread out, the lane was clear for Teague. He finished with 28 points and five assists and easily was the best player on the floor.

The Pacers’ response was to collapse. They were called for three offensive fouls and a technical in the third quarter. They had as many turnovers (five) as baskets over those 12 minutes. Even a cosmetic surge near the end couldn’t disguise what had happened: The No. 1 seed had been beaten soundly in a game in which it was supposed to turn things around. What leads us to believe that Games 2 and 3 and beyond will be any different?

When are the Pacers going to come out of the two-month-long malaise?

A No. 8 seed treating the No. 1 so rudely would have qualified as a major shock — except that the Hawks, having coalesced into something approximating the team that general manager Danny Ferry and Budenholzer envisioned, really aren’t a No. 8 seed. They might be better than that.

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