A few days ago, it appeared the Atlanta Hawks' season was destined for a familiar conclusion, that of the premature postseason exit. The team could subtract Joe Johnson and his massive salary from the equation, but players like Josh Smith and Al Horford were only making it easier for their detractors.
Then the first round series against the Indiana Pacers headed back to Atlanta. Once there, everything changed.
Returning to Indianapolis for Game 5, the Hawks have found their rhythm, dominated the Pacers in back-to-back games and tied up the series at two games apiece. After losing the first two games by an average of 16 points, Atlanta has asserted itself as the team to beat in this series.
With a third straight win Wednesday, the Hawks would head back to Atlanta capable of ending the series in front of their home fans. Considering how they played in the first two games of at the series at Philips Arena, one has to imagine the Pacers will come out firing in Game 5 to avoid that fate.
Here are three questions to break down a pivotal Game 5 in the Eastern Conference:
1. Can the Hawks win on the road?
This is one question looming over the team entering Game 5. As good as the Hawks looked over the past two games, they were both at home, where the team played much better this season. This was a below-.500 team on the road this season, can they win the big one hundreds of miles way to provide an opportunity to clinch in Atlanta?
The home team has won every game in this series by double digits, none of them in particularly exciting fashion. If the Hawks can end that trend Wednesday, the Pacers may have a hard time rebounding from their third consecutive defeat.
2. Will the Pacers regain their shooting stroke?
In the first two games of the series, Indiana made 47 percent of its shot attempts and took 63 trips to the charity stripe. Over the past two losses, those numbers dropped to 33 percent and 53 trips, respectively. All things considered, the Pacers' offense just stopped functioning in the past two games.
Some of that can be attributed to the Hawks' defense, which put pressure on guys like George Hill, Lance Stephenson and Gerald Green to make shots. For the most part, they didn't, and the Pacers' scoring totals suffered as a result.
However, heading back home for Game 5, expect the Pacers to try and make some adjustments that allow their perimeter guys to get going.
3. Will free throw shooting finally cost Atlanta?
In the regular season, the Hawks were a bottom five team in the NBA in free throw shooting percentage, per NBA.com. Because the games in this series have been so lopsided thus far, it's difficult to really say how Atlanta's poor form at the charity stripe has impacted this series, but the problems have persisted:
Game 1: 7 of 14 (50 percent)
Game 2: 11 of 20 (55 percent)
Game 3: 16 of 28 (57 percent)
Game 4: 25 of 38 (66 percent)
Obviously, there are two ways to look at this. One could point out that, with each game, the Hawks' free throw line numbers improve across the board, both in terms of raw numbers and efficiency. However, even in Game 4, Atlanta was well below-average in terms of actually making free throws.
The Hawks have survived alright so far without making the easiest shots in the game, but it's difficult to imagine that lasting as the competition heats up.