The Indiana Pacers have pretty much been the top seed in the East from day one. At the All-Star break, many people were talking about the Pacers as the best team in basketball, but despite outlasting Miami for home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, their recent struggles have many of us questioning whether or not they are still true title contenders.
The good news for Indiana is that their first-round opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, is a 38-win team who barely beat out the Knicks for the eight seed in the East. The bad news for the Pacers is that, while they have struggled mightily down the stretch, the Hawks have closed strongly, winning six of their last eight games, including a win against the Heat and, more importantly, a blowout win at Indiana less than two weeks ago.
As I mentioned in my regular season finale preview the Hawks are playing with confidence right now, but do they have the firepower to take down the top seed in the East? Let's take a look at what the numbers say.
Indiana Pacers (1)
Championship Odds: 10.3%
Atlanta Hawks (8)
Championship Odds: 0.4%
Regular Season Series - Pacers 2, Hawks 2
The season series between these two teams was incredibly even. Not only did the Pacers and Hawks split their four regular season games, but each team won one game on their home floor and one on the road. Three out of the four games were decided by double digits, while only one of the games, a Pacers 89-85 win in Atlanta, was even close.
The difference in all four games seemed to be the Hawks' guard play. In the two contests the Hawks won, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver averaged a combined 34 points and 8 rebounds. Meanwhile, in the two Hawks' losses, Teague and Korver only averaged a combined 22.5 points and 5.5 boards. The matchup between George Hill, Lance Stephenson and the Hawks' starting backcourt could have a huge outcome on the outcome of this series.
How the Pacers Can Win
Defense, defense and more defense. The Pacers' roster is full of defensive studs from top to bottom. Roy Hibbert and Paul George are both arguably the best defenders at their positions in the league, while Stephenson and Hill are both tremendous defenders as well. According to our metrics, the East's top seed graded out as the best defense in the NBA with a 99.3 defensive efficiency rating, allowing the second-fewest points in the league at 92.3 points per game.
One of the keys to the Pacers two regular season wins against the Hawks was Roy Hibbert and David West's ability to limit the scoring of Atlanta's big men, especially star PF Paul Millsap. Millsap was held to only seven points in each of those games, making only five of his 23 shots. If the Pacers can continue to shut down Millsap they should have little trouble winning this series.
Pacers Player to Watch - Lance Stephenson
Early in the season when the Pacers looked like the best team in basketball, Stephenson was playing the best ball of his career. He was a spark plug on the offensive end, and one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Most importantly, Lance finally seemed to have found his role within the flow of the Pacers' offense, and was playing with a tremendous amount of confidence. Although he was playing at an All-Star level, Lance was snubbed from the team, and it seemed to mess with his head. Over the second half of the season, Stephenson seemed a bit out of sync, which was a huge reason why the Pacers struggled towards the end of the season.
Fortunately for the Pacers, Lance seemed to get his groove back a little bit against the Thunder in the team's second-to-last game (Coach Vogel benched all of the Pacers' starters for their regular season finale). In that game, a Pacers win, Indiana's star guard notched his league-leading fifth triple-double, dropping 17 points, 11 assists and 10 boards. When Lance is on his game, the Pacers are simply a better team. If he has a big series, the Pacers will win, but if he struggles, the Hawks could have a chance to pull off the upset.
How the Hawks Can Win
With great passing and unselfish offense - that's how the Hawks can win. One of Atlanta's major strengths is that every player on the team is a ready and willing passer. In fact, the Hawks were second in the league in assists, averaging 24.9 dimes per game, despite not having a single player who averages seven assists per game. Atlanta has 11 players who average at least an assist per game, and six players who average at least two, a true testament to how unselfish this team is.
When matching up with a relentless defensive team like the Pacers, sharing the basketball becomes increasingly important, and it was a huge factor in both of the Hawks wins against the Pacers this season. Atlanta out-assisted Indiana by 12 dimes in those two victories, with every single Hawks player recording an assist in both games (with the exception of DeMarre Carroll in the Hawks most recent blowout win). If the Hawks want win this series, Jeff Teague's ability to put pressure on the defense and distribute the basketball has to play a huge role. If the Pacers allow Teague to get into the paint and dump the ball off to Millsap and the other Atlanta bigs, they could be in a lot of trouble.
Hawks Player to Watch - Paul Millsap
This past offseason, the Hawks let Josh Smith leave to sign with the Pistons. J-Smoove's departure freed up cap space for Atlanta to bring in Millsap, a signing that signified a big strategic shift for the Hawks. Although the Hawk's star forward isn't able to create his own shot the same way Smith does, Millsap is much stronger in the post and is a much better rim protector than Smith. Since joining the team, Millsap has been Atlanta's rock, and the team didn't do well when he was forced to miss time. The Hawks lost four of their five games when Millsap missed time due to injuries this season, with their major mid-season slump revolving around a period where Millsap was forced out of the lineup for five games.
The problem for Atlanta is that, as I mentioned earlier, Millsap disappeared in the Hawks' two losses to the Pacers earlier this season. Like many big men who have faced the vaunted Pacers defense, Millsap was rendered ineffective in his first three games against Hibbert and West this season. However, Millsap seemed to have solved the puzzle that is the Pacers defense the last time these two teams squared off. He was sensational in Atlanta's dominating victory over the Pacers earlier this month, posting 17 points, 11 boards, three assists and two blocks. If the Pacers are able to shut him down the way they were the first three times these teams met, the Hawks have virtually no chance of winning this series. But if the Hawks' star forward is able to get going, this series could get very interesting.
Ultimately, I think Indiana's relentless defense is just too much for the Hawks to overcome. This series will consist of mostly close, low-scoring games and, despite a few big games from Teague and Millsap, Atlanta's offense will be mostly ineffective. Although I doubt the Pacers' offense will be very effective either, I think George and Stephenson bring enough to the table offensively to outlast the Hawks.
According to our algorithms: Pacers in 5
My final prediction: Pacers in 6