In my Pacers vs. Hawks preview, I made it very clear that I thought this series could be closer than many people anticipated. Although the Pacers won a whopping 16 games more than the Hawks, these two teams finished the season on two very different trajectories. The Pacers came into this series reeling after struggling nearly the entire second half of the season, while the Hawks came into this series both confident and with a chip on their shoulder after closing the season strongly, including a 107-88 blowout of the Pacers on April 8th.
Before this series started, few people were picking Atlanta to pull off the upset. But after their dominant performance in Game 1, many NBA analysts have already done a 180. Some analysts have even gone as far as to declare the Pacers done as if no team in NBA history has ever come back from an 0-1 deficit.
While I do think this series is far from over, it's impossible to ignore Atlanta's recent success against the Eastern Conference's top seed. Taking this into consideration, are the Hawks a better team than we thought? One of the main reasons why I think they are is because many people don't realize how much injuries truly impacted their season.
Throughout the long NBA season, every team has to deal with injuries. The wear and tear of an 82-game schedule makes it virtually impossible for any team to stay completely healthy, but for some teams injuries can have a bigger impact than others. For example, the Clippers didn't even miss a beat when Chris Paul missed significant time this season because Blake Griffin was able to raise his game to a near MVP level. Contrarily, when the Hawks' starters were forced to miss time Atlanta absolutely struggled.
|Opening Day Starting Lineup||Number of Games Missed||Hawks' Record in Missed Games||Hawks' Record in Games Played|
Out of the 11 games in which either Paul Millsap or Jeff Teague sat out due to injuries, the Hawks only won three, and that doesn't even take into consideration the games that these players were knocked out of early. While Elton Brand and Shelvin Mack did their best to fill in admirably for Millsap and Teague, they're simply not on the same level as the Hawks' two stars and, in result, Atlanta struggled.
While the Hawks' issues while playing without Millsap or Teague are almost to be expected, the Hawks have fared even worse without the role players in their starting lineup. Atlanta's record without their floor-stretching SG Kyle Korver or their best wing defender, DeMarre Carroll, is absolutely abysmal.
During their 11 games without Kover who, along with Teague, was one of the players I identified as needing to have a major impact on this series for the Hawks to pull off the upset, Atlanta only won one game - a one-point squeaker over the Mavericks. This poor record without their best shooter includes a six-game losing streak in March, which almost cost them a playoff berth. Similarly, the Hawks were only able to win one game out of the nine Carroll missed this season, including three out of the Hawks' seven game losing streak in February. Atlanta especially missed Carroll's defense in a 108-98 loss to Indiana in which Paul George dropped 26 points.
The one Hawks' opening day starter that I have yet to mention is Al Horford, who was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle back on December 28th. At the time of their star center's injury, Atlanta was 17-13 and looked like one of the more dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference. With Pero Antic (who missed 33 games of his own this season) forced into their starting lineup, it took a while for the Hawks to regain the chemistry they had developed with Horford in the lineup. This led to the Hawks losing four of their first five games without the former Florida Gator star.
Although there were only two games all season where the Hawks were forced to play without two or more of these key players (not including Horford), their 5-24 record without Millsap, Teague, Korver or Carroll has truly skewed their overall record. With all four players healthy, as they are today, the Hawks record was 34-28.
Now, let me make this clear, while I do truly believe the Hawks deserve more credit than they have received, I'm not suggesting that Atlanta is going to win this series (in fact, I am sticking to my original prediction of Pacers in six). But if Coach Vogel and the Pacers' players are unable to make some adjustments and pull out a win tonight, I might be singing a different tune.