By Matt Winkeljohn, for NBA.com
POSTED: Apr 19, 2013 8:46 AM ET
Indiana's Paul George averaged better than 17 points a game this season but his health is a question now.
If before the season you had told Pacers fans that Danny Granger was going to play in just five games and yet Indiana would end up with home court in the first round of the playoffs, it's a good bet many would have snickered.
Playoff Series Preview: Pacers vs. Hawks
Yet here they are, the No. 3 seed in the East, ready to play the No. 6 Hawks (44-38) with the first game set for Sunday at their place.
For much of the season, the Pacers (49-32) were the NBA's top defensive team, and behind the dramatic improvement of wing Paul George and the steady play of point guard George Hill they for a long time were a serious threat to grab the No. 2 spot behind defending champion Miami.
You wouldn't know it from looking at them lately, however, as Indiana lost five of its last six games with the defense often going AWOL. And this was not because coach Frank Vogel was resting starters wholesale -- although he did in the final couple games. The Pacers fell out of sync before that.
"Ideally, you want to be playing your best ball at this time of year," Vogel told reporters after a 105-95 loss to the 76ers Wednesday. "We were, up until the final week. For whatever reason, we struggled the last week."
NBA Playoff Picture
The Hawks didn't exactly revolutionize the sport of basketball down the stretch, either. They lost five of their last seven and lost a grip on the No. 5 spot, although there is no evidence that coach Larry Drew and his crew were aching to hold onto that in order to face the Nets in the first round for the right to play the Heat in the second round.
Drew did rest players down the stretch, and a team that lost high-scoring guard Louis Williams to a midseason knee injury and key reserve center/forward Zaza Pachulia late to an Achilles tendon injury, has injury issues still.
Starting center Al Horford, who missed much of last season because of a shoulder injury suffered against the Pacers, missed the last two games with a sore shoulder. The other half of Atlanta's often dynamic front court, Josh Smith, is battling tendinitis in a knee.
"I've said it the last few days . . . I'm going to err on the side of caution given that Al is a little sore, and I thought Josh looked a little gimpy tonight as well," Drew said after he decided not to play Smith in the second half of Tuesday's loss to Toronto before holding Smith and every Atlanta starter out of Wednesday's loss in New York.
Bob Ryan: East Playoff Preview
The Hawks count as something of a surprise, too, or they did for much of the season. Even after new general manager Danny Ferry traded away starters Joe Johnson (Nets) and Marvin Williams (Jazz) as part of a purge to create salary cap space this summer, the Hawks were until a month ago in the chase for home court in the first round.
This looks like an interesting matchup: the physical Pacers, who prefer a deliberate pace, against a Hawks squad that would rather get up and down the floor.
These teams split four games during the regular season, each team winning twice on its home floor. Before that, Atlanta beat Indiana 11 of 13 times.
1. With Granger (left knee) down, who's the main man for the Pacers? George (17.4 ppg) more often than not has led the way, but he's slumping and the severity of his abdominal strain remains a question. David West (17.1) has had a solid season.
2. Who could be the X factor for Atlanta? Among starters, perhaps point guard Jeff Teague, whose quickness may be a problem for Hill and his teammates. Hill's been bothered by a sore groin.
3. Can the Hawks maintain intensity for an entire series? Drew wishes he could answer that; at times Atlanta can be maddeningly lethargic.
4. Do the Pacers have enough bench to keep up with Atlanta? Maybe, maybe not. That's been an issue all season. Jeff Pendergraph has played fairly well of late.
5. Does free agency matter? Meaning, does the fact that two-thirds of the Atlanta roster, including Josh Smith, is not under contract beyond this postseason serve as an incentive for several Hawks to play as if on fire, or as if they're about to be shipped off?
It's going to move around. Indiana doesn't really have a ball hog nor an ace set-up man; four of five starters average three assists or more, led by Hill (with a modest 4.7 apg). Indiana doesn't play inside-out in prototypical fashion inasmuch as center Roy Hibbert is not much of a passer. West, though, can move the ball, and score it from the post. When the Pacers are humming, George and Hill are bonafide 3-point threats, but as Vogel said the other day, George's long ball lately has been, "not even close."
Josh Smith anchors the Atlanta defense, which, when dialed in, can be top-10 caliber. His size (6-feet-9) and athleticism enable him to toggle inside and occasionally out. Chances are that if George's offensive struggles continue, the Pacers are going to go heavy to West and Hill. Defensive ace Dahntay Jones may be called upon to help off the bench.
They'd rather run it down the Pacers' throats. Indiana finished second in the NBA in points allowed, first in field goal and 3-point defense and in rebounding. A lot of those numbers were fueled by Indiana's diligence in limiting run-outs. Kyle Korver, who switches back and forth from shooting guard to small forward, is just one of several Atlanta players who can do damage with the 3-pointer. He's nearly the only player whom the Hawks routinely run plays for just to set up a long shot. Drew likes to try to take advantage of the combined athleticism of his two primary bigs, Horford and Smith. They both can play back-to-the basket, or step out and hit the jumper.
The Pacers have to slow speedy Atlanta guards Teague and Devin Harris -- if Harris' nagging foot doesn't slow him. Hill may need help there. Once in a halfcourt defense, Hibbert cannot just camp with the idea of simply protecting the rim. Smith and Horford can, as he said, "pick and pop ... so I'm going to have to move my feet outside the paint." Somebody has to chase Korver around all those screens.
It says here that Josh Smith will play out of his mind in this series; he's on the record saying that he believes he's a max contract -level player. J-Smoove has some proving to do.
For big chunks of the season, Ian Mahinmi (5.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg) was among the most dependable players off the Indiana bench. Lately, not so much. Pendergraph has been better, and Tyler Hansbrough and Gerald Green have become a bit more predictable.
For the Hawks, Korver's ability to shoot the 3-pointer (he's made at least one in 74 straight games, the fourth-longest streak in NBA history), can change games. Ivan Johnson sometimes comes off the bench and plays like Charles Barkely with a jumper. Other times, he plays like Ivan Johnson, journeyman.
This has all the feel of a series where the Hawks will steal a game in Indianapolis, then give one back at home before a toss up the rest of the way. The Pacers, though, have been utterly discombobulated lately while falling behind by 20 points or more in six straight games. So, Hawks in six.