INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Indiana's next game is the most important of the season.
If the top-seeded Pacers can't protect their home court Tuesday night, they'll be down 2-0 heading to Atlanta - where they have only won twice since December 2006.
The Pacers have been in a late-season swoon, with a perception that they're soft. Since March 1, the Pacers are 12-14 and the league's stingiest defense has been nothing short of ordinary, numbers that have increased the speculation about everything from psychological problems and team chemistry to what players are doing outside basketball.
There have been questions about Roy Hibbert's mentality, George Hill's defense and how to stay out of foul trouble. At one point in late March, Hibbert called some of his teammates 'selfish dudes,' a comment he later apologized for. After Saturday's game, the questions were more about how to avoid foul trouble and defend Atlanta's spread offense following the Hawks' 101-93 victory.
Critics found a new complaint Monday - Paul George's fishing trip on Sunday even though George is almost always one of the last players off the court and had asked coach Frank Vogel if he could defend the suddenly explosive Jeff Teague.
But the Pacers insist the complaints aren't a major topic of conversation in the locker room. Instead, they're focused on getting back to being themselves.
'It is motivation in that they expect us not to be at that level but that's it,' George said. 'Regardless, we've got to expect more out of ourselves.'
Vogel is more concerned with making adjustments.
He acknowledged Monday that the 6-foot-9 George, one of the league's best wing defenders, will spend at least some of Tuesday's game guarding Teague, who has scored 53 points in the last two games against his hometown team. Vogel declined to say what other changes he has planned to deal with the Hawks' array of 3-point shooters.
Atlanta knows things won't be the same Tuesday after they became the first team to defeat Indiana on its home court twice this season. Backup forward Elton Brand indicated the Hawks have identified a few possible alterations, though he refused to give away any secrets.
'You try to prepare for adjustments but you really worry about your team and how to get better,' he said.
For the moment, they have the upper hand in this first-round series and have a chance to become the first Atlanta team to open a playoff series with two straight road wins.
Teague said he won't a change a thing if George winds up on him.
And the Pacers? They are not long on words these days.
When Hibbert was asked if he liked the direction his team was headed, he responded 'yeah.' When he was then asked if he felt good about the planned adjustments, he responded 'yeah, yeah.'
Notes: One day after the TNT commentator Charles Barkley publicly blasted Indiana's toughness by calling the players 'wussies,' Indiana's coaches and players said the comments would not be the motivation to win Game 2 against Atlanta. 'Chuck ain't never been behind this team from the get-go. Look, Larry Bird told us that, too, that we had been playing soft and all that,' Paul George said, indicating the conversation with Bird took place last year. 'It fires us up that we lost against a team we should have beaten and we've given up home-court advantage, not something Charles said.'
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