The team arrived at Philips Arena for what was expected to be a regular practice and film session Thursday, a chance to prepare for a must-win game against the Indiana Pacers. Instead, coach Larry Drew spoke briefly with the players and sent them home.
No practice. No watching film.
“I know our guys are not just physically fatigued but I think they’re mentally fatigued as well,” Drew said. “I wanted to just allow these guys to kind of get away, kind of regroup, kind of recharge a little bit as we’re getting ready for Game 6. I brought them in and spoke to them. But I just really felt the best thing today was to get away from it, get away from us, get away from everybody and get ready for (tonight).”
The Hawks certainly weren’t ready for Game 5.
Indiana reasserted the physical dominance it showed in the first two games, romping to a 106-83 win and a 3-2 lead in the series. The Pacers can wrap things up with a win tonight in Atlanta.
More troubling for the Hawks was not only losing the game, but losing their cool. Three players — Josh Smith, Jeff Teague and Ivan Johnson — picked up technical fouls for griping to the officials. Two more technicals were whistled for defensive 3-second calls.
In all, it was a total collapse by a team that had played with such energy and control during the two previous games in Atlanta.
Now, the Hawks can only hope to extend the streak of the home team winning every game in the series, which would force a Game 7 at Indianapolis on Sunday. It’s still a rather bleak scenario — Atlanta has lost all three games in Indy by an average of more than 18 points — but that’s the only path they have.
“There does come a point where it stops being about Xs and Os,” Drew said. “That’s where we are. It’s a two-game series and obviously we want to extend it by winning. But Xs and Os, it won’t be about that. It will be about how hard we play between those lines, how hard we compete.”
The Pacers are in a much more enviable position, obviously, knowing they can win the series without winning a game down south.
But coach Frank Vogel would like to see his young team take an important step in its development process by stealing one on the road. Indiana is still finding its way in the postseason, which was evident during its two losses in Atlanta, one of them a 21-point blowout that was over by halftime. This may be the last time the Pacers have a home-court edge, so they need to find a way to get it done outside of their cozy, raucous fieldhouse.
More daunting, Indiana hasn’t won in Atlanta since 2006, a 13-game losing streak that provides another mental stumbling block.
“You can’t look at it like we’ve lost 13 in a row there or two in a row there,” Vogel said before the team boarded its flight. “We have to look at it like they’re a different team at home. They’re really, really good at home and we’ve made some adjustments that we hope will help.”
Vogel changed the rotations for Game 5, keeping some starters with the second unit to provide extra scoring punch. David West played his best game of the series, scoring 24 points, while Paul George added 21 points and 10 rebounds.
But the biggest change came at the defensive end, where the Pacers finally looked like one of the NBA’s stingiest teams. They held the Hawks to 33 percent shooting — by far their worst showing of the series — and rarely gave Atlanta a decent look. Smith and Al Horford — the main inside threats — combined to shoot 10-of-30. Guard Jeff Teague, the catalyst for the offense, was a dismal 3-of-16. No one on the Hawks scored more than 14 points.
“I don’t know if they did anything differently,” said Atlanta Kyle Korver, who never found much of an opening for his specialty, the 3-point shot. “They just played at a high level. That was the best game they’ve played. We didn’t get any easy looks, even on the fast breaks. We had a lot of tough layups. We had some close shots, but they were still contested. We never really got into a good offensive rhythm.”
With each missed shot, the Hawks bickered more and more with the officials.
The two things Drew had preached before the game — composure and playing smart — went totally out the window in the second half as the Pacers pulled away.
“We went into a hostile environment knowing that Indiana would come out and give us their best shot,” the coach said. “We have to be able to respond to it. The way to respond is not to lose our composure, and we did. We lost our composure.”
Atlanta actually shot two more free throws than the Pacers in Game 5, which makes the meltdown even more perplexing to Drew.
“The way we went at the officials, it’s like we’re playing the blame game again,” he said. “I thought we got some great whistles. We got to the foul line as many times as they did. It wasn’t the whistles. It was the way we responded. That’s not the way to get it done in the playoffs. You’ve got to be much tougher mentally, you’ve got to be much stronger, you’ve got to be thick-skinned. You can’t let things rattle you.”
Maybe some time away from each other will help.