The Pacers’ blistering hot start came as a stark contrast to the malaise shared by the rest of the East, and their mediocre finish came while several other teams in the conference were finally beginning to find their stride and ready themselves for a playoff push.
The other team to follow a similar path? Their first round opponents, the Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta got off to a solid, if unspectacular start, and were easily the 3rd best team in the conference for most of the first two months of the season thanks to a balanced attack featuring Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Jeff Teague. Their decline started with the loss of Horford for the season with a torn pectoral (he has the dubious distinction of having suffered two of the three torn pecs in NBA history), and was compounded with a series of injuries to the rest of the roster.
Indiana’s problems have been a bit tougher to pinpoint. Roy Hibbert’s stellar defense and respectable offense from the beginning of the season have tailed off, and Paul George has fallen from fringe MVP candidate back to his levels from last season (and worse in some ways). The defense has remained strong, though not at the historic levels of the beginning of the season. The offense…uh, that’s another issue. They have been downright terrible at times, with Hibbert and George’s regression combining with a general lack of cohesiveness to tank any offensive productivity they once managed.
This has never been a team that leaned on its offense – the defense paid the bills, and the offense just had to keep from being too awful. Lately the offense has simply been too awful for the team to win consistently, and they need to correct that if they want to make a run to the conference finals (and beyond).
This may be a uniquely unpleasant matchup for the Pacers thanks to Horford’s replacement at center, Pero Antic. Antic is a 31 year old “rookie” center from Macedonia who has played for years in Europe. He shoots 41.8% from the field and posts a mediocre 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per 36 minutes. Not the typical profile of a guy who can cause problems for a #1 seed. So what gives?
Well, Antic provides a unique combination of tough defense and shooting that frustrates the hell out of Hibbert, who would prefer to linger around the paint and squash drives rather than chasing guys around the perimeter. The Pacers have attempted to mitigate this issue by having David West stick with Antic on the perimeter while Hibbert guards Millsap, but Millsap is a tough cover in his own right thanks to his speed and shooting. He actually shoots a better percentage from the perimeter than Antic, who, while he takes over half his shots from deep, made only 32.7% of these attempts.
The Hawks’ roster in general features a lot of strong shooting by design, including one of the best shooters in the league in Kyle Korver, and they will use this to force Indiana out of their comfort zone as much as possible. With the defensive talent on the Pacers’ roster, that’s about the best a lower seed can do.
On the other end of the floor Hibbert struggles against Antic’s size and strong footwork, removing one of the options from the already limited Indiana attack. The battle doesn’t end in the middle though, and that’s where things can get a bit more tricky for the Hawks. Lance Stephenson’s athleticism will give Korver fits, and West is a tough cover for anyone, even a solid defender like Millsap. George can stretch DeMarre Carroll, and George Hill will require constant off-ball attention from Teague, who is prone to ball watching.
Atlanta’s strong shooting will push the Pacers in at least a couple of the games in this series, but this could also end up serving as the perfect tuneup for Indiana. The Hawks have struggled mightily with turnovers during the second half of the season, and after a few games the Pacer defense may have a good read on the ball movement that Atlanta uses to get its shooters open. A 10-turnover quarter or two could easily render this series near-unwatchable if the Hawks can’t keep things tight, and if it happens all of the drama surrounding the Pacers could magically disappear.
This series will be closer than the average 1-8 matchup, and Atlanta is better than their pathetic record indicates, but it would still be a monumental upset if they managed to take down an Indiana team that seemed to have a clear path to the Eastern Finals as early as a month ago.