4 observations: Jordan Nwora goes off, but Pacers can't slow Hawks after Trae Young ejected
ATLANTA -- The Pacers got a record-setting offensive performance from one of their new acquisitions but couldn't slow down Atlanta, falling 143-130 to the Hawks at State Farm Arena.
The Pacers lost three of four games on their last extended road trip of the season and fell to 33-42, assuring themselves of a losing season. They fell behind the Washington Wizards into 12th place in the Eastern Conference and are now three games behind the Chicago Bulls for 10th place and the final play-in spot. The Hawks improved to 37-37 and stand alone at eighth place in the conference.
Here are four observations:
Pacers give 'B.S. effort' on defense
The Pacers never played particularly well on defense, but their offense kept pace with the Hawks and they seemed to get a reprieve in the third quarter when Trae Young was ejected from the game. Young knocked down a 3-point near the logo and drew contact from Pacers forward Aaron Nesmith, but Young kicked his leg out on the shot so an official ruled it an offensive foul and waived off the 3 rather than give Young a chance at a four-point play. Young got extremely angry about the call, threw the ball in the ref's direction and was immediately ejected.
At the time, the game was tied at 84 and Pacers point guard Tyrese Haliburton knocked down the technical free throw to give the Pacers the lead with 7:30 to go in the third quarter. However, without their former All-Star, the Hawks only got better on offense and the Pacers didn't get any better at stopping them.
The Hawks outscored the Pacers 71-56 in the second half and 59-45 after the technical foul. In the second half, they knocked down 23 of 45 field goals (53.5%), 8 of 13 3-pointers and 17 of 20 foul shots. They finished with eight players in double figures led by forward John Collins with 21 points, scored 76 points in the paint and finished the game shooting 55.2% from the floor and made 15 of their 30 total 3s. They also scored 22 second-chance points on 15 offensive rebounds to finish with 1.36 points per possession in a total evisceration of the Pacers' defense.
The Pacers had problems in just about every possible area. They couldn't guard the dribble well enough to stay out of rotation. They didn't rotate well enough to get to shooters. They collapsed on the dribble drive to allow lob dunks, and of course, when the Hawks actually missed, they didn't block out well enough to get rebounds.
"It's horrendous," backup point guard T.J. McConnell said. "No other way to put it. It was just a step slow, B.S. effort. It was not good. There's no other way to spin it."
Young finished with 14 points and four Hawks surpassed him. Guard Dejounte Murray took over primary ball-handler duties and finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Big man Clint Capela needed just five field goals to score 17 points and also grabbed 17 rebounds. Recently acquired former Lipscomb star Garrison Matthews scored 14 points and hit four 3-pointers as the Hawks scored 62 bench points.
"They shot really well in the third and fourth there when Trae went out," Pacers point guard Tyrese Haliburton said. "We knew the other guys would have to raise their level and they did, kudos to them. Had a lot of them guys step up. Matthews and (Saadiq) Bey and (A.J.) Griffin. They really got going in that third and then that fourth quarter. It was just a lot of second-chance kickouts that were messing us up. We didn't rebound well and didn't defend the 3-point line well enough. ... There was a lot of miscommunication on our end. We gotta get better at at that. "
Jordan Nwora set a record in the second
Fans sitting in the Hawks "Sixth Man" section, which happens to be not far from press row, tried to throw Nwora off his game while he was standing at the foul line in the second quarter by asking him "Who are you?"
In fairness, casual NBA fans who didn't follow the ACC while Nwora starred at Louisville might not know Nwora that well, as he spent most of the last three years stuck at the end of the bench on a loaded Milwaukee Bucks team. But Nwora spent the rest of the second quarter providing a pretty impressive answer.
Nwora scored 25 points in that quarter alone, a franchise record, knocking down 9 of 11 field goals, 3 of 4 3-pointers and all four of his free throws.
"I hit an easy 3 in the corner and then from there, Rick (Carlisle) just called a couple plays, put me in some ball screens and I was able to make stuff happen off of that," Nwora said. "He trusted me, I trusted myself. Once I saw a few go in, I just had a lot of confidence moving forward after that."
The period was a perfect example of all the ways the Pacers are giving Nwora freedom he never had in Milwaukee -- which he has acknowledged was understandable considering he had All-World teammates. But Nwora got work as a ball-handler in the pick and roll and was allowed to attack and make decisions off the dribble. He got downhill to the rim off the bounce, but also hit a step-back 3 coming off a high ball screen. And even when he wasn't handling the ball, the Pacers' point guards were setting him up, finding him for catch-and-shoot 3s and on dives to the basket, including one that led to an emphatic one-handed jam.
"He has the ability to get going," Carlisle said. "We saw it in Milwaukee against us. He was hitting four or five 3s, but he wasn't exhibiting some of these other skills, putting it on the floor, playing in pick-and-roll, some of those other things. As a full-court attacker, he got a couple of coast-to-coast plays when he either scored or got fouled. He's got a lot of stuff. The thing I liked most about tonight is he did it in the most efficient way that he's played so far."
Nwora added seven points in the second half to finish with 33 points. He was 12 of 17 from the floor, 4 of 7 from 3 and 5 of 5 at the line. Nwora averaged just 6.0 points per game in 38 appearances with Milwaukee this season, but so far with the Pacers he's averaging 12.4 per game, shooting 49.4% from the floor, 44.9% from 3-point range and 71.4% at the line.
"The kid can flat out score," McConnell said. "I think it was on me to give him the ball more and I didn't and I'll take that one. I gotta keep feeding him and continue the hot hand. I should have done that more. That one's on me. But since he's gotten here, he's been unbelievable. He's a great kid, great teammate and a special scorer."
Reggie Miller had a 25-point quarter for the Pacers in a playoff game. Mike Dunleavy had the previous record in a regular season game with 24 points in the third quarter against the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 11, 2010. Prior to Saturday, the Pacers had just 10 20-point quarters by an individual in franchise history. Mike Dunleavy, Caris LeVert and Paul George each accomplished the feat twice. Miller, Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Lance Stephenson accounted for the other four.
Bennedict Mathurin, Buddy Hield struggle again
When Haliburton returned to action on Friday night, Carlisle kept Bennedict Mathurin in the starting lineup and moved Buddy Hield out of it. Carlisle has kept Mathurin coming off the bench for most of the season because he's more successful there, but with the season coming to a close he wanted Mathurin to feel the weight of the "responsibility" that comes with starting, especially because it means having to defend top players.
So far Mathurin has struggled with that responsibility. He found himself on Jayson Tatum on Friday night and Murray on occasion on Saturday and struggled to keep either man in front of him. And his defensive struggles affected him on the offensive end as well. In 24 minutes on Saturday, Mathurin scored just four points on 2 of 4 shooting after he had just two on 1 of 4 shooting on Friday. Mathurin is still averaging 16.3 per game on the year, and he's one of five Pacers in history to score more than 1,000 points in his rookie season, but he's averaging just 13.6 points per game in the games he's started.
"It's important for these guys to understand the responsibility that comes with being a starting player on an NBA team," Carlisle said, referring to all young players who have started including Andrew Nembhard and Isaiah Jackson. "It's gotta be about doing your job within the system, doing your job defensively and doing your job offensively, having trust in your teammates. It's not just about your statistics or where your shots are going to come or any of that kind of stuff. If you get distracted by stuff like that you're not going to play well. This week has been a great opportunity for these guys to experience something that need to experience."
Carlisle said Hield has taken moving to the bench well even though he started each of the season's first 73 games before he was moved to the bench Friday. However, he scored just eight points on 2 of 9 shooting on Friday and 16 on 5 of 16 shooting on Saturday.
Play-in hopes slipping away
Though the Pacers players have continued to discuss postseason play as a goal, Carlisle has said that season's final games are mostly about development and trying things out. He's looking to create competitive situations and he's looking for effort and fight, so the Pacers certainly aren't trying to give games away, but organizationally, they're not doing a lot of scoreboard or standings-watching either. The Pacers weren't expected to come anywhere near postseason this year, so they're not treating it as any kind of organizational imperative that they make it.
Still, it could have been helpful to get the Pacers at least one game in a do-or-die scenario, and after this road trip, that seems increasingly unlikely.
As previously mentioned Pacers are a full three games behind the Bulls after this 1-3 road trip and they're down to just seven games to play. Only one of those -- their April 7 home game against the Pistons -- comes against a team that has been eliminated from postseason contention. This week, they play Dallas on Monday and Oklahoma City on Friday, two teams currently tied for the 10th and final play-in position in the Western Conference. In between on Wednesday, they get a Bucks team with the best record in the NBA. They also play the fourth-place Cleveland Cavaliers on the road on April 2 and the fifth-place New York Knicks at home on April 5 and at Madison Square Garden to end the season on April 9. The Bulls' record isn't much easier, as they play just two teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention, but the Bulls just have to stay steady and the Pacers need them to collapse.
On the flip side of that, the Pacers currently have the sixth-worst record in the NBA, which means the sixth-best draft lottery position. They have one more win but one more loss than the Portland Trail Blazers (32-41), who seem content to move on from this season with Damian Lillard shut down for the year. The Orlando Magic (31-43) are just a game and a half behind them and still have a chance to pass them. The Pistons, Hornets, Rockets and Spurs will hold the four top lottery positions in some order, but the Pacers seem likely to finish somewhere between 5-8 in that pecking order.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Pacers vs. Hawks: Eight Hawks score in double figures to beat Pacers