By Michael Marot
The Associated Press
Paul George insisted a little rest and a new focus would change everything for the Indiana Pacers.
He made sure that prediction came true Sunday.
Following the best season of his three-year career, George opened the playoffs by producing the first postseason triple double of his career — 23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists — and led the Pacers out of their late-season funk and past Atlanta 107-90 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series.
Suddenly, all those problems ailing the Pacers have been forgotten.
“I know what the team will expect from me now,” George said. “But, again, I like the pressure.”
He can expect to be dealing with even more of it in the best-of-seven series.
There were plenty of questions after Indiana coach Frank Vogel gave four of his starters — George, George Hill, Roy Hibbert and David West — a three-day break this week. The move meant those four came into the opening game without playing a minute since last Sunday’s loss at New York sealed Indiana’s fate as the East’s No. 3 seed.
Outsiders wondered whether those off-days would rejuvenate the Central Division champs, who looked so good from mid-December through early April, or whether the team would be rusty after stumbling to five losses in its last seven regular-season games.
Those inside the locker room said the extra rest would be beneficial. Sunday’s performance left no doubt as fans repeatedly waved the gold towels the Pacers handed out before the game.
While George went 3-of-13 from the field, he made his first 17 free throws — tying Reggie Miller’s single-game playoff mark for best percentage. George missed his 18th and final attempt with 2:35 to go. It was about the only thing that went wrong for the all-star forward who had Indiana’s first triple double in the playoffs since Mark Jackson on May 13, 1998 against New York.
Indiana also has a 1-0 lead for the first time since beating the New Jersey Nets 90-88 in 2006.
“It was huge for our confidence,” George said. “We got back to playing our style of basketball.”
George had plenty of help, too.
Hill, who sat out parts of practice Friday and Saturday with an injured left groin, made his first six shots and finished 7-of-10 from the field with three 3-pointers and 18 points. And Roy Hibbert added 16 points and 11 rebounds on a day the Pacers outrebounded Atlanta 48-32 and limited the Hawks to 14 fast-break points.
Vogel couldn’t have designed a better script.
“You have to stick to who you are and play your style of play, which I think we did,” Vogel said. “We have to play with passion. When we play with passion and energy on both ends of the court we’re pretty good. “
Atlanta found out the hard way.
Former Indy high school star — and former Anderson resident — Jeff Teague led the Hawks with 21 points and seven assists, while Josh Smith had 15 points and eight rebounds. The only other Atlanta player to reach double figures was Al Horford with 14 points.
Most of the Hawks’ players were upset about the wide free-throw discrepancy.
Indiana was nearly flawless from the line (30-of-34), while the Hawks spent most of the second half in foul trouble and made 7 of the 14 free throws they got.
“I felt we like earned the opportunity to shoot a little bit more free throws than what we did, but it is what it is,” Smith said. “We have to make sure next game that just one player on the opposing team doesn’t shoot more than the whole entire team.”
Coach Larry Drew had bigger concerns.
He was disappointed with how the team responded to the calls and with the effort, too. He hopes both will be fixed when the series resumes Wednesday in Indy.
“We didn’t come up with the big plays, we didn’t come up with the hustle plays, the energy plays,” Drew said. “I thought right when we were, I believe it was a nine-point game, them shooting a free throw, they come up with the offensive rebound off the free throw, kick it out, swing it around, they get a 3. That’s just getting outworked. They just clearly outworked us.”
It wasn’t a perfect game for Indiana.
Again, the Pacers got off to another rocky start by giving up the first six points. But unlike the previous six games when they dug themselves into 20-point deficits each time, Indiana wasted no time charging back.
The Pacers used a 9-0 first-quarter run to take a 19-13 lead, extended it to 34-26 after one and never trailed again.
While the Hawks tried valiantly to rally, cutting the deficit to four late in the second quarter and trimming Indiana’s 15-point lead to eight with 7:23 to go, Indiana never let the Hawks get any closer and eventually pulled away.
Just like they were doing in the middle of the season.
“We got back to playing our style of basketball,” George said. “They came out and hit shots, but what we did a great job of was not letting them string some of those baskets together. We kind of ended their momentum, and that’s what it’s going to take.”