The Atlanta Hawks have existed to be written off. First in the preseason, then as the Knicks came barreling toward their hold on the No. 8 seed, then when they were matched up with the monolith Indiana Pacers in Round 1.
Every time, they keep proving their doubters wrong.
Four Hawks starters scored in double figures and Lou Williams came off the bench to add 11 more, as Atlanta earned a 98-85 victory over the Indiana Pacers to take a shocking 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven series.
What's more impressive is that the Hawks beat the Pacers at their own game: third-quarter dominance. Two nights after Indiana blitzed Atlanta, 31-13, after halftime to help even the series and save face at home, the Hawks carried their eight-point advantage in the third to a victory Thursday night.
After watching 14 of their 16 three-point attempts clang off the rim in the first half, Atlanta got back to the whirring ball-movement that gave it a victory in Game 1. DeMarre Carroll scored nine of his 18 points in the quarter, and the Hawks hit six three pointers to go into the final 12 minutes ahead by nine.
Kyle Korver added 20 points, Paul Millsap had his first double-double of the series (14 points, 14 rebounds) and Jeff Teague scored a team-high 22 points and added a series-high 10 assists.
It was Teague who came up time and again for Atlanta down the stretch as the Pacers tried mounting a comeback. He scored 11 points in the fourth, including a stretch where he scored nine of Atlanta's 11 points as part of an outcome-solidifying run. The highlight of the night, and perhaps the series, was Teague hitting an off-balance three-pointer as the shot-clock expired, causing him to strike a Jordan-esque shrug pose.
Shrugging is just about all the Hawks can do at this point. When the series reconvenes Saturday night in Atlanta, they will sit on the precipice of the most improbable 3-1 series lead in recent NBA memory.
''Our group has been very, very resilient all year, very tough-minded all year,'' Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters before the game. ''I've felt good about this group all year, and I don't feel any differently now.''
As for the Pacers, these feelings of helplessness are starting to become familiar. Indiana shot just 37.6 percent from the field, with a majority of its offense coming from the trio of David West, Lance Stephenson and Luis Scola. West and Scola combined for 33 points to give the Pacers power-forward rotation teeth, while Stephenson was a mad man all over the floor, finishing with 21 points, 13 rebounds and four assists.
The problem was, once again, Indiana's two biggest stars didn't show up. Coming off something akin to a superstar rejuvenation cleanse in Game 2, Paul George failed to score a point in the first half. He dealt with foul trouble from the opening minutes and failed to get into a rhythm the whole night, scoring 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting.
"We have a dream of winning it all," George told reporters. "We've got be much more tougher than that. I don't think it's there. Our toughness is questionable right now."
Roy Hibbert remains mired in the slump that's affected him for the better part of the month. The Pacers center, so integral to their conference finals run a year ago, shot 2-of-9 from the field for his four points and grabbed only two rebounds. For the series, Hibbert is averaging six points and 4.7 rebounds on 28 percent shooting.
With Atlanta stretching the floor and diminishing Hibbert's role defensively, Frank Vogel has had little choice but to sit his anchor. Ian Mahinmi entered the game for Hibbert with 3:58 remaining in the third quarter, and the All-Star sat for the rest of the game.
Hibbert received just 19 minutes, lowest of all Pacers starters, while Mahinmi received 20 in an extended run with the first unit. Mahinmi is rangier and has better lateral quickness, making him a stronger option to defend the Hawks' series of pick-and-pops.
Indiana was outscored by eight points with Hibbert on the floor. The Hawks still outpaced Indiana by three with Mahinmi in Hibbert's place, but the stretches of success were more sustained. While it stands to disrupt his team's already precarious chemistry, Vogel will have to look long and hard at giving Mahinmi a lion's share of the minutes going forward. The Pacers also had success offensively with Scola and West sharing the floor—something Vogel blanched at during the regular season.
The loss has to represent something of a rock bottom for Indiana. Rumors of fist-fights between teammates, the potential firing of Vogel and subsequent downplays littered the Pacers' build-up to Game 3. Distractions were rife in a locker room already dealing with the prospect of becoming the second No. 1 seed in NBA history to lose to a No. 8 in the best-of-seven format.
The Hawks remain a happy-go-lucky offensive machine, knocking down threes and taking advantage of every opportunity. Atlanta took 37 free-throws to Indiana's 21, and set a series-high with 21 assists. The blueprint didn't change from Game 1 to Game 2 to Game 3. The Hawks are who they are and plan on keeping to ride this wave for as long as it lasts.
Vogel wishes he could say any of those things about his team.
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