INDIANAPOLIS | Pacers coach Frank Vogel got tough on his players Saturday, and the Pacers responded with a gritty, series-tying win at Atlanta.
Now comes the hard part: Figuring out how to get this team to play with the same edge for a second straight game, something the Pacers haven't done in almost two months.
So with the swing game in this best-of-seven series looming, Vogel made a clear effort to get his players' attention with a short, simple, stark reminder about what the Hawks have already done this month.
"Look, this team won two of the last three games we've played in this building and they beat us pretty good," Vogel said less than 24 hours after Indiana evened the first-round series at 2-2. "So we have to stay hungry."
That hasn't been easy lately.
For months, all the Pacers could talk about was clinching home-court advantage in the playoffs. But after jumping to a 33-8 first-half record, they've only reverted to that first-half form when they've needed to win big games.
It's been more than a month since the Pacers' starters have strung together consecutive wins, a span in which they've had to contend with all sorts of questions, rumors and innuendo about what led to their freefall. Critics openly wondered whether this would go down as the worst collapse in NBA history and whether the Pacers would be remembered as the worst No. 1 seed ever.
Through it all, Vogel preached the power of positive thinking.
By Saturday morning's shoot around, Vogel knew his team needed more than a pat on the back — they needed a jolt out of the blue.
"I was like what? He was barking at everybody, even if you had a decent game," Lance Stephenson said of Vogel's shockingly fiery critique. "I think we needed that."
But if the top seed in the East is going to chasing its ultimate goal, ending Miami's three-year run as Eastern Conference champs, they need to do more than play well once in a while or only when their coach steps out of character.
The motivation to get this fixed is obvious. Win Monday night and the Pacers would lead 3-2 and have control of the series for the first time. Lose and they'll go back to Atlanta, where the Pacers have won only three times since December 2006, facing elimination.
"We can't be complacent just because we got home-court advantage back," All-Star starter Paul George said, referring to the fact they gave it away with an embarrassing loss in Game 1. "We've got to put this game and this series away."
Atlanta, the No. 8 seed, has not allowed the Pacers to do anything of the sort.
Instead, the Hawks have challenged Indiana at every turn with a spread offense and an array of 3-point shooters that has essentially nullified Indiana's biggest advantage — its size and proficiency in the paint. The mismatches have forced Vogel to go with smaller lineups and prompted the move of George, one of the league's top wing defenders, to slow down Hawks point guard Jeff Teague.
Indiana has won two of three since making the changes, taking away a golden opportunity for Atlanta to take a 3-1 lead. But the Hawks are confident they can regain their mojo in Indy, where the Pacers have been virtually unbeatable to any team except the Hawks. Atlanta is 2-2 in Indy this season, the only team in the league to beat Indiana on its home court twice.
"We'd all feel better if it was 3-1 and we maintained home-court advantage," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said during a conference call Sunday. "That's what you're playing for and when you go out to compete, that's your ultimate goal."
Atlanta did not make its players available Sunday, and Budenholzer did not discuss what changes, if any, he would make Monday night.
The Pacers, meanwhile, see this as an opportunity to reassert themselves and rediscover their winning formula.
"We did talk about how the first team to win two games in a row usually wins the series," Vogel said. "We've got an opportunity to do that tomorrow night."