Pacers beat Hawks to remain in playoff contention
By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Pacers have emerged as one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference. They just hope it didn't happen too late.
Mike Dunleavy scored 28 points, and the Pacers beat the Atlanta Hawks 112-98 Tuesday night to avoid elimination from the playoff race. The Pacers have won three straight and nine of 12 to pull within two games of the Hawks for the eighth playoff slot in the East with four games left.
"I was telling some fans yesterday I wish we had 10 more games, five more games, because we're starting to get in a rhythm," Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal said. "We're starting to take a disposition about ourselves on both ends of the floor."
A win by the Hawks would have knocked the Pacers from playoff contention, and Atlanta would have needed just one more win or a New Jersey loss the rest of the way to clinch a berth.
Instead, Indiana still has a chance. The Pacers also claimed the tiebreaker against the Hawks by winning two of the three matchups this season.
"If we lose that game, it was over," Indiana's Danny Granger said. "We definitely had that sense of urgency, and it's carrying us through right now."
The Pacers aren't interested in missing the playoffs to get a high draft pick.
"I don't understand why anybody would want us to go to the lottery," Dunleavy said. "To play in the playoffs is an honor -- you're one of 16 teams that has a chance to win it all. That's the goal of this organization, that's the goal of this team, and we're going to keep playing until we're out of it."
Indiana and Atlanta have four games left. Atlanta has tough home games against Boston and Orlando. Indiana's toughest remaining games are at Philadelphia and at Washington.
"If we're going down, we're going down fighting," Granger said.
Flip Murray had 20 points and 10 rebounds, Granger scored 16 points and Marquis Daniels added 15 for Indiana.
Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 30 points. Josh Smith had 25 points and 13 rebounds, and Josh Childress added 16 points and 12 rebounds for Atlanta.
Johnson was disappointed in his team's effort.
"We acted like we didn't want to play tonight, and if you can't get up for this game, you don't need to be playing at all."
Indiana shot 51 percent from the field and held the Hawks to 37 percent shooting.
The Pacers led 67-52 at halftime, and the Hawks lost their composure early in the third quarter. Smith was called for a technical and a flagrant foul two seconds apart, and Indiana led 73-52 after the free throws.
A dunk by Daniels on an assist from Murray increased Indiana's lead to 79-54 with just over seven minutes left in the period. The Pacers led 93-72 at the end of the quarter after leading by as many as 29 points.
"You can't spot this team 30 points and think you're going to come back," Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said. "Tonight, we didn't have any kind of defensive presence."
Atlanta made a push to start the fourth quarter. A 3-pointer by Salim Stoudamire cut the Pacers' lead to 95-81, and a lay-in by Smith minutes later trimmed Indiana's edge to 95-85 with seven minutes left.
The Hawks again cut the Pacers' lead to 10 points, 97-87, on a jumper by Johnson, but Indiana recovered with a 10-2 run to put the game out of reach.
"They just play harder than us every time we play them," Johnson said. "It's nothing they're doing. It's not the players they've got. We didn't play hard, so we get our (expletive) kicked. Point blank."
O'Neal said the Pacers are confident they will make the final stretch interesting.
"I think we will finish this season at a very high level," he said, "and if we don't get into the playoffs, it gives people a better feel about what we can really do with our full team."
: New Indiana Hoosiers basketball coach Tom Crean attended the game and got a standing ovation. ... Indiana C Jeff Foster was called for a technical foul for arguing a call 56 seconds into the game. Pacers coach Jim O'Brien got a technical with three minutes left in the opening period for arguing a call against Granger. ... The Pacers led 38-27 at the end of the first quarter after shooting 65 percent. ... The Hawks are 14-14 with G Mike Bibby as a starter.