pacers hawks

Round 1 Preview: Pacers (1) vs Hawks (8)

And so the real fun begins.

The No. 1 seeded Indiana Pacers (56-26) open their 2014 playoff campaign against the 8th seeded Atlanta Hawks (39-43) . No one gave the Hawks a chance after they lost Al Horford for the season with a pec injury, but they managed to hang around and finish the season strong by going 6-2 in their last 8 games.

Conversely, the Pacers’ struggles since the All-Star break have been well documented, so there’s no need to go there again. The last time these two teams met, April 6, the Hawks dropped the Pacers to their lowest point of the season, a 107-88 drubbing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that ended a dreadful 3-8 stretch. Since then, the Pacers are 3-1 and finished the season with 2 consecutive wins, including one against the contending OKC Thunder. Two of the games (Milwaukee and Orlando) were essentially played by the reserves, so it’s hard to tell whether the Pacers have really turned the corner or will continue to struggle.

Schedule

Game 1 – Sat, Apr 19
Hawks
@
Pacers
7:00 PM
Game 2 – Tue, Apr 22
Hawks
@
Pacers
7:00 PM
Game 3 – Thu, Apr 24
Pacers
@
Hawks
7:00 PM
Game 4 – Sat, Apr 26
Pacers
@
Hawks
2:00 PM
Game 5 – Mon, Apr 28
Hawks
@
Pacers
8:00 PM
Game 6 – Thu, May 1
Pacers
@
Hawks
TBD
Game 7 – Sat, May 3
Hawks
@
Pacers
TBD

Matchups

Pacers:
Roy Hibbert — 10.8ppg, 6.6rpg, 2.2bpg
PF David West — 14ppg, 6.8rpg
SF Paul George — 21.7ppg, 6.8rpg, 3.5apg
SG Lance Stephenson — 13.8ppg, 7.2rpg, 4.6apg
PG George Hill — 10.3ppg, 3.5apg
Reserves: Luis Scola, Evan Turner, CJ Watson, Ian Mahinmi, Rasual Butler, Donald Sloan, Chris Copeland, Lavoy Allen, Solomon Hill, Andrew Bynum*
*Has not played since March 15 and is out indefinitely. Frank Vogel has said Bynum will not play in the first round.

Hawks:
Pero Antic — 7ppg, 4.2rpg
PF Paul Millsap — 17.9ppg, 8.5rpg, 3.1apg
SF DeMarre Carroll — 11.1ppg, 5.5rpg
SG Kyle Korver — 12ppg, 4rpg
PG Jeff Teague — 16.5ppg, 6.7apg
Reserves: Elton Brand, Mike Scott, Cartier Martin, Louis Williams, Shelvin Mack, Mike Muscala, Dennis Schroder, John Jenkins, Gustavo Ayon

Analysis

On paper, and judging by regular season records, the Pacers should demolish the Hawks, as a first seed should do to an 8th seed. But with the Hawks playing well despite injuries and the Pacers playing like crap despite health, it won’t be a shock to find a lot of people who believe the Hawks can pull off an upset.

The two teams split their regular season series 2-2, with each team winning once on the road. Though the Hawks don’t have Al Horford, Paul Millsap remains a nightmare, as does Jeff Teague. In fact, the entire Hawks team provides matchup problems for the Pacers because they like to shoot from the outside, with Kyle Korver being particularly deadly. That negates the Pacers’ biggest strengths, which are interior defense, rim protection, and funneling opponents towards the big fella in the middle.

We’ve seen what Antic can do, and he was apparently the reason Hibbert only played 9 minutes the last time these two teams met. “Matchup problems,” as coach Vogel called it.

So the big question remains whether the Pacers can regain some of their unstoppable early season form that pushed them to a 33-7 record to start the season. If they can, then there’s nothing for Pacers fans to worry about. But it’s a big IF. As many analysts have pointed out, the Pacers drop off has been staggering. Historical. More than “norm” than a “slump.” Since the All-Star break they have had the worst offense in the league apart from the Philadelphia 76ers, which, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe put it, the worst among real NBA teams.

That said, history has shown that teams who play well entering the playoffs don’t necessarily play well in the playoffs, and teams who struggle heading into the playoffs don’t necessarily continue to struggle. It really is a clean slate, and it’s the same reason why no one is seriously concerned about the Miami Heat’s near-equally bad end to the season.

As this article suggests portion size almost always trumps recency, and the Pacers did not win 56 games and earn the best record in the East by accident. The Pacers’ 52 games before the All-Star break, in which they were 40-12, should therefore be more indicative of the type of team the Pacers are than the 16-14 record they put up after it.

I’ve said all along that the Pacers are built for the grinding nature of the playoffs. People tend to forget that they were the 3rd seed last season and did not finish strong but ended up beating both the Hawks and the favored Knicks in 6 games. There are no back-to-backs, which the Pacers have struggled with all season, in the playoffs, and playing the same team 4-7 times in a row is a whole different ball game to the regular season.

There are other factors too. People also forget that Hibbert struggled badly in stretches last season as well and had a lot of questions over his head heading into the playoffs, where he proved he was worth the max-level contract the Pacers gave him by putting up 17 and 9.9, way above his regular season averages of 11.9 and 8.3. Chances are he will step up against this year. He is what he is — an inconsistent, offensively weak center whose play depends on his mood and the matchup, BUT he always steps up in the playoffs.

And don’t forget, Paul George stepped up big in last year’s playoffs, as did Lance Stephenson in big games, so they could and should elevate their respective games again.

Last year the bench was the Pacers undoing in the playoffs, and even though they’re still not as good as we would like them to be, there’s every reason to expect them to be much more reliable this time around. Luis Scola appears to have found his jump shot, at last, and he’s got more experience in big international games than anyone else in the series. Ian Mahinmi has finally developed into the backup center the Pacers hoped he would be when they signed him a couple of years ago, and CJ Watson is just solid, plus he seems to be playing with high confidence since returning from injury. Evan Turner is still a question mark, but I like what he has been doing lately, not forcing his shot and playing facilitator. He’s a big time player and I have confidence the Granger trade will pay off at some stage in a big moment or in a big game.

As for George Hill — I know a lot of folks have written him off and say his matchup with fellow hometown hero Jeff Teague will be one-sided, but if there’s anyone that will light a fire under Hill’s butt it sure has to be Teague. There is no doubt these two will go at it hard. So maybe we will see a much more aggressive Hill at last.

Prediction

This is arguably the most difficult series to predict because no one knows what kind of Pacers team will take the floor against the Hawks. But I’m confident that, after all they’ve been through over the last couple of months, the Pacers are focused and ready to go after the championship. Paul George said the team has never been tighter than it is now, and David West said that he believed the experience has brought them closer together and will make them stronger in the face of adversity.

While the first game could tell us a lot in terms of where this Pacers team is at, we should remember that things can swing very quickly in the playoffs from game to game. The Pacers have the best home court record in the NBA at 35-6, but they have struggled on the road, finishing 21-20 for the season. They have more experience after having gone to the Conference Finals last season, but the Hawks will play like they have nothing to lose. So there are a lot of variables up in the air.

The key to the series will be adjustments, and I think will be able to adjust better than the Hawks over the length of a series because of their weapons and versatility. While Antic will be a problem for Hibbert, he is also just a rookie who has never been in the playoffs, and teams like Atlanta that rely on their outside shooting have a much smaller margin of error.

My prediction, well at least my hope, is that the Pacers find their rhythm and put away the Hawks in 5 hard fought games, several of which could go down to the wire.

Predictions for other series

While we’re at it, I might as well throw in some predictions for the other first round series.

EAST

Miami (2) vs Charlotte (7) — Miami in 6 — much like the Pacers there are some question marks hanging over the Heat, and Al Jefferson is a true beast. But the Bobcats are 0-15 against the Heat in the LeBron era and it’s hard to see them pulling off what would surely be the biggest upset in NBA history.

Toronto (3) vs Brooklyn (6) — Toronto in 7 — this one’s a toss-up, with many thinking the Nets have the experience to negate home court advantage. But Toronto is a tough place to play, and perhaps their youth and enthusiasm will help them advance — but just.

Chicago (4) vs Washington (5) — Chicago in 5 — theoretically, 4 vs 5 should be the closest series, but the Bulls should have the upper hand here with their experience and insane defensive pressure. If they can find their offense it could be over quickly, but I have my doubts.

WEST

San Antonio (1) vs Dallas (8) — San Antonio in 5 — I’ve love Dirk, but I can never write off the Spurs, who swept the regular season series and are practically a lock for the Conference Finals. They are scary good.

Oklahoma City (2) vs Memphis (7) — Oklahoma City in 6 — Memphis is one tough 7th seed, but OKC’s on a mission and will have too much firepower in the end.

LA Clippers (3) vs Golden State (6) — LA Clippers in 7 — At least I hope it goes 7. I love this series and it will be the one I follow most after Pacers/Hawks. Lots of alley oops and three pointers, and I hope to see at least one 40-point game from Steph Curry. But at the end of the day, Chris Paul will carry the Clips when needed.

Houston (4) vs Portland (5)  — Houston in 6 — Harden will act like he’s been shot like JFK every time he gets into the lane and end up at the line a zillion times.

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