After once again getting out to a slow start against the Atlanta Hawks with their normal line-up, the Indiana Pacers went small halfway through the first quarter, putting Chris Copeland in for Roy Hibbert. In a matter of minutes, they made up a 15-5 deficit, taking control of the game and the series. The Hawks didn’t have an answer for Lance Stephenson and they didn’t have an answer for Paul George.
Stephenson finished with 21 points, 9 rebounds and 1 assist on 7-13 shooting while George chipped in 24 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists on 7-18 shooting. The Pacers have built their identity around their big men, but when they go small, there are very few teams in the NBA who can match-up with their two young wing players and the Hawks are not one of those teams.
Frank Vogel was trying to put as much shooting and athleticism around Stephenson and George as possible, which meant a few drastic changes to his normal rotation. There was very little Roy Hibbert and there was no Luis Scola and no Evan Turner. All three will still be needed at various points in the playoffs if Indiana can slip past Atlanta, but there’s not much use for them in Game 7.
There isn’t a true center for Hibbert to match up with on the Hawks roster, while Scola and Turner are subpar athletes who can’t shoot 3’s. When those two are in the game, the ball naturally winds up in their hands, since the defense doesn’t have to guard them out to the three-point line. On the other side of the floor, neither one can get out and guard the Hawks shooters 25+ feet from the basket.
That’s the way forward for Indiana, no matter what happens in these playoffs. Hibbert is who he is and David West is starting to slow down - George and Stephenson should be the future of this franchise. That’s two elite athletes who can create their own shot, run point, shoot from deep, crash the glass and defend multiple position on the perimeter. They are two of the most complete guards in the NBA and they are only 23.
George is already locked up to a max contract, but because Stephenson was a second round pick in 2010, he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. You don’t see an under-25 starter who can contribute on both sides of the ball enter free agency that often, which will make Stephenson one of the most interesting players on the market. If I was Indiana, I would do whatever it takes to keep him.
As long as you have Stephenson and George together, you can move everyone also around them. Let those two guys dominate the ball and play in space and they will create a good offense. I would use them like Wade and LeBron - always have one of the two on the floor to run offense through. And just like Wade and LeBron, they can be the cornerstones on offense and defense.
That’s what has to happen in Game 7 - the Hawks don’t have the horses to run with those two. If Kyle Korver is on either one of them, give them the ball and let them create in space. If they have to move him on George Hill, not only have you opened up Hill’s offense, that also means Jeff Teague has to cross-switch on either George or Stephenson. Get him in early foul trouble and the game is over.
Spin it forward and it’s the same thing in the next round. John Wall and Bradley Beal are used to being the two most athletic players on the floor - all of a sudden, they are playing against guys who are much bigger than them and just as athletic. And while Washington had to win the lottery twice to get their star guards, Indiana got two potential All-NBA players with the No. 10 and No. 40 picks in 2010.
Keep Stephenson and George together and Indiana will have an elite team for many years to come. But if they let Lance walk and give Turner some of his money instead, the slide that began in the middle of this season might be a sign of things to come.