The Pacers couldn’t shoot early, couldn’t defend most of the night, couldn’t protect their home court and kept All-Star center Roy Hibbert on the bench for the final 30 minutes — all against a team that still hasn’t clinched a playoff spot.
Jeff Teague scored 25 points in his hometown, Pero Antic finished with 18 and the Hawks handed the NBA’s best home team an embarrassing 107-88 loss Sunday that could have a major impact on playoff seeding in the East.
“I think as many games as we play, sometimes you just have a half like that,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think we participated in it some, but I think we just caught them on a rough night.”
The truth is the Hawks (34-42) are back on track.
Since losing six straight and falling temporarily out of the top eight, Atlanta has won three of its last four to take firm control of the No. 8 slot. If it holds that slot, Atlanta would make the playoffs for an Eastern Conference-best seventh straight season and get a probable first-round matchup with either the two-time defending champion Heat or the suddenly reeling Pacers.
Sunday’s win, coupled with New York’s 102-91 loss at Miami on Sunday, gave Atlanta three fewer losses than the ninth-place Knicks, who have four games left, and a two-game lead overall.
Still, coaches and players in Atlanta insist they’re not paying attention to the other scores.
“We’re genuinely more focused on building our habits and improving,” Budenholzer said. “If we do what we talk about each day, those things will take care of themselves.”
Indiana (53-25), meanwhile, is trying to pull itself out of a complete collapse.
Since beating Miami on March 26 to take a three-game lead in the chase for the East’s top seed, the Pacers have lost four of five to fall one game behind the Heat. They were even forced to cancel Saturday’s practice because a wind gust sent a baggage cart crashing into the team plane after Friday night’s loss at Toronto, Indiana’s sixth straight on the road — a practice it certainly could have used.
The Pacers couldn’t get closer than 13 after falling into a 14-point hole midway through the first quarter Sunday, and their 23 points were a franchise low for a first half. The previous low was 27 against the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 10, 2004.
How bad have things gotten?
Team president Larry Bird barely budged as he watched the league’s No. 1 defense allowed Atlanta to shoot 56.2 percent from the field and make 12 of 27 3-pointers. Indiana followed a 7-for-35 shooting effort in the first half with a 15-for-43 showing in the second half.
Coach Frank Vogel was so upset by the sluggish start that he yanked all five starters midway through the first quarter and benched Hibbert because Vogel thought he needed some extra rest. Hibbert, who looked disengaged on the bench, did not speak to reporters afterward.
“He looks worn down,” Vogel said. “He’s a 7-foot-2 player who has played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He’s given good effort but he looks to me to be worn down. Combine that with the fact that they have a 3-point shooting 5-man most of the game. It’s a difficult matchup.”
But none of it made this blowout any easier to accept.
Indiana missed its first seven shots as the Hawks jumped to a 9-0 lead. Things only got bleaker as the game continued.
Atlanta scored the final five points of the first quarter to take a 33-11 lead. When Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the second, the Hawks led 45-15. They were still up 55-23 at the half as Indiana’s frustrated players shook their heads and frustrated fans serenaded the team with boos as they left the court.
“It was a must-win for us tonight,” Teague said. “We came out hungry, we came out with energy and we came out with passion.”
When Indiana finally showed some spark in the second half, it was too late.
The Pacers used an 11-0 spurt to get as close as 75-59 late in the third, but they couldn’t get closer than 15 until 1:18 remained.
“I thought we were super locked in,” Kyle Korver said. “We’re fighting for a playoff spots and we came out like that.”