POSTED: Apr 17, 2014 10:06 AM ET
UPDATED: Apr 17, 2014 1:52 PM ET
Despite a second half slump, the Pacers still finished 35-6 at home this season.
The Indiana Pacers got what they wanted all along. The Atlanta Hawks are fortunate to be where they are, sneaking in as the worst of the best.
So why does this first-round Eastern Conference playoff series nearly vibrate with anticipation, something memorable and melodramatic just waiting to happen?
Blame it on the Pacers, who have been delivering high-maintenance instability for a couple of months, game in, game out, like one of those housewives shows.
Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview
Seriously, if you were writing Indiana's script based on its most recent episodes, there's only one possible plot line for Game 1 Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse: Atlanta blows in and snatches the Pacers' treasured homecourt advantage away. Oh, the angst that would ensue.
Don't forget what the Hawks did two Sundays ago in Indianapolis, pouncing on a 23-point first half by the Pacers for only the second blowout victory (10 points or more) by an Indiana visitor this season. It was the lowest of several rock bottoms coach Frank Vogel's crew had hit since the All-Star break and the most funkified, with center Roy Hibbert yanked after nine minutes and languishing uncomfortably on the bench the rest of the afternoon.
There's a history between these teams that doesn't have the Hawks quivering. For all their inconsistency across 82 games -- they had a 1-14 stretch that began in February, followed by five consecutive victories, then six consecutive defeats -- they have fared well against the Pacers. The teams split their season series, 2-2, and it took six games for Indiana to put out the Hawks in last year's first round.
"I think we feel pretty good," said Atlanta's 3-point marksman Kyle Korver. "It's been a hard year with injuries for us. We've just been so streaky with playing really well and playing really poorly. I think for the most part the last couple weeks we've been playing pretty well and been pretty healthy."
It's worth noting that no team in the East has a longer active streak of playoff appearances than Atlanta's seven. But with so much foreshadowing, so much closely monitored slippage on the court and off as they went cat-and-mouse with the somewhat sputtering Miami Heat down the stretch, this series primarily will be about the Pacers.
If what traditionally is considered near-unthinkable really happens -- No. 8 toppling No. 1 -- it might not even qualify as an upset. By seedings, by records? Sure. But not by mojo or anything we've witnessed lately.
1. Did the Pacers fix themselves in time? They say what needed fixing got overstated in some heated media coverage, contrasting their marvelous selves of the season's first three months or so with what transpired from there. And even at its worst, Indiana faced the funk head-on. "Everyone has their little spats, but for the most part, we've been great on and off the court," Hibbert said. "We've been grown men about it and just talk about it. I won't go into specifics but we've asked, 'How can we get better? What are some of the problems?' We've got guys here who can take constructive criticism." They'd be better off, for the next round or two, anyway, minimizing how much they elicit.
2. How did Atlanta overcome the loss of Al Horford? After Horford, their veteran big man, went down for the count in December with a torn pectoral muscle, the Hawks shrugged off their chances of playing with a strong post presence and ramped up their perimeter game. Only Houston, at 33 percent, hoisted a greater percentage of their shots from outside the arc than these guys (31.6). They ranked second in the NBA in 3-point attempts and fourth in makes, with Korver hitting at a 47.2 percent clip.
3. Who has the coaching edge, Frank Vogel or Mike Budenholzer? It would sound weenie to say "toss up," so we'll go with Vogel in a close decision. He at least has the experience and the credentials of having led Indiana a little deeper for three consecutive postseason, with a trip to The Finals the next logical (if elusive) step. As dicey as things got for him with all the March and April scrutiny, he does enter these types of showdowns with an appropriate chip on his shoulder that his players like. For Budenholzer, who went through so many playoff wars sitting next to Gregg Popovich, he'll be finding out for the first time how different this time of year is when you're sitting 18 inches over.
4. Are Larry Bird's midseason acquisitions -- Evan Turner, Andrew Bynum -- going to help? Minimally, looks like. Forget about Bynum, who looks pretty much the same sitting on Indiana's bench as he did on Cleveland's and Philadelphia's before this. Turner hasn't upheld the Pacers' commitment to defense -- at least Danny Granger, who was traded for the 76ers' wing player, had some bulk to him that bothered foes -- and gets caught occasionally ball-stopping and searching for his shot as if he were in Philly. He might rise up for a game or two, if Indiana can last a while this spring, but a reliable bench contributor? Probably expecting too much.
5. Where's the pressure? Squarely on Indiana. Anything short of a Finals appearance will feel like a failure, and an end dealt to the Pacers before the East championship round could lead to some serious fallout for the roster and the coaching staff. Atlanta really has nothing to lose at this point.
Indiana is at its best when it is playing inside-out. That means feeding power forward David West for some early looks, and making sure Hibbert stays involved on the offensive glass. It's usually folly to run offense through the 7-foot-2 center because he gets too easily push off his spots near the paint and will resort to soft jumpers and hooks that opponents don't mind him taking.
Overall, of course, this offense has been sideways for a while -- it ranked 29th, better only than Philadelphia's, after the All-Star break, scoring just 99.8 points per 100 possessions.
Atlanta's best tactic will be to pester Hibbert when he has the ball, to mess up Indiana's passing lanes -- the Pacers are prone to turnovers, still shaky at executing basic entry passes to the post -- and to seek frustrate Lance Stephenson into forcing matters and shot, which rarely works well for his team.
Atlanta generated assists on exactly two-thirds of their baskets this season -- 66.6 percent -- which was the highest rate in the league. That's a good news/bad news thing, suggesting patience and passing while also highlighting the Hawks' shortage of players who can generate something out of nothing by themselves.
But this was a different team against Indiana, unfazed by the Pacers' lofty defensive rankings and stats. The Hawks averaged 10.3 3-point field goals in their four meetings, second-most of any opponents (remember, Indiana ranked third in 3-point defense). And while no team would consider it a smart idea to directly challenge Hibbert inside, Miami showed in its last meeting that looping around near the rim, making the big man move, can pay real dividends. For the most part this season, though, Atlanta has opted to draw him outside, where Hibbert is less comfortable.
The Pacers' best answer for Atlanta long-distance shooting has been Paul George. As NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted in the two teams' stats, the Hawks shot 36 percent from 3-point range when George was on the court vs. 56 percent when he was sitting. His defensive reputation, like those long arms and aggressive stances, is the real deal.
David West has emerged as the Pacers' go-to guy in tight situations for a couple of reasons. He works relatively close to the basket, improving the odds, and he's awfully unflappable. George often has the ball in his hands, but he has a tendency to shoot from far out. And he hasn't fully developed the knack for getting to the line that will come for him in time.
Whether you need three points or two, it's hard to beat Korver as a clutch option. He had an effective field-goal percentage of 71.2 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, and he is one of the best marksmen in recent league history. Paul Millsap, meanwhile, does seem to get a full measure of referee respect, in terms of working his way to the foul line.
For Indiana, we've got to stick with Lance Stephenson, who can take over games with his individual brilliance and stubbornness ... and go haywire if the latter gets ahead of the former. As much as you might want to cite the Indiana homecourt advantage, given the Pacers' record in Indy, the recent struggles have fans at BLFH a bit shell-shocked and quick to turn on their heroes.
For Atlanta, let's just note that DeMarre Carroll was a pivotal guy this season. How much? The Hawks were 3.2 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when he was on the floor and 6.6 points worse when he was on the bench. It almost lends itself to a nickname: Ol' Don't Sit Down DeMarre.
As tempting as it might be to go mostly off the most recent evidence, there is a good chance that Indiana -- with a more relaxed schedule in recent days, including the ramp-up to the first round -- can stabilize in time to take care of business. It won't be easy and it might not be pretty, but having a Game 7 on its own court might be just as important against the Hawks as Indiana imagined it would be against Miami. Pacers in 7.
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