Eastern Conference 1st Round: Atlanta Hawks vs. Indiana Pacers

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The Indiana Hawks got the 1st seed they were looking for in the East but it was a rocky road to get there and they found an opponent that matches up great against them while the Hawks weren’t even looking to make the playoffs, Per USA TODAY:

“Throughout the year, I felt we’ve been on a good path,” Ferry said. “When healthy, we’ve been a very good team. I like the way we play. It’s system-based. I like our players. There’s some substance to them. With the way we’re set-up from a salary cap standpoint and a roster standpoint that good things can continue to unfold.

“We’re not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that’s not our goal. We’re trying to build something that’s good, sustainable and the components are in place for us to do so.”

But they did anyway, and got the perfect match-up for them. They are the underdogs, but with a real chance to make some noise in this series.

How Atlanta Wins:

Strong defense is going to be very important for the Atlanta Hawks. The Indiana Pacers don’t find scoring the ball to be an easy task and by playing tough defense they can play the Indiana Pacers out of the series. When the Pacers aren’t scoring, they’re not only losing but they begin to bicker, their chemistry begins to deteriorate and they become a different team altogether. During the season the Hawks were smack in the middle in points allowed per game with 101.5. They let teams shoot 46% from the field, and force 15 turnovers a game. Defensively, they’re just above average. That’ll have to pick up in this series, and it shouldn’t be that hard considering the Pacers often don’t need defense to prevent themselves from scoring. They’ve done an exceptional job at limiting Roy Hibbert offensively in the regular season, holding him to 5 points and 4 rebounds in their 4 regular season meetings, and it wasn’t like he was taken out due to foul trouble either, he averaged 2 fouls a game. A lot of that can be credited to the mismatch the Hawks pose for Hibbert defensively. Guys like Pero Antic and Mike Scott have to pull Hibbert out on the perimeter when he’s on the floor, there is really nobody for Hibbert to match up with defensively considering the Hawks play a combination of big men that like to play on the outside. If he can continue to be taken out of the game, the Pacers offense gets tough because they lose a low post threat and Roy Hibbert begins to take himself out of the game with a bad attitude, or less effort on defense. He can either be the downfall for the Pacers or the key to their success, so it’s important to target him defensively and also go at him offensively. That means everybody, not just the big men have to be aggressive from the start and attack him in the paint to try get him exerting energy defensively and to try get him into foul trouble. DeMarre Carroll will be huge for them as a defensive weapon in subduing Paul George. George is one of the best in the league but can fall into slumps quickly and easily if he’s taken out of his comfort zone. Carroll matches up very well physically against George and has had experience guarding the best in the league before, and that’ll be vital for the Hawks’ success.

I think the one player they have to worry about the most is Lance Stephenson. He’s the X factor for the Pacers, because when he is attacking the rim and making plays their offense is a whole different team. I’m not that worried about Paul George’s impact in this series because DeMarre Carroll is a very tough defender on the perimeter, but potential defenders for Lance are Lou Williams and Kyle Korver – hardly a duo he’ll be up all night thinking about. He’s more athletic and has a strength advantage over both of them, and if he gets in a rhythm in this series that might make the difference.

Offensively, a big thing the Hawks need to avoid is settling for the three-ball. They shoot the 2nd most threes a game in the NBA with 26. It’s a big part of their offense, but their opponent is notorious for running people off the three point line and preventing the three ball. They can’t settle because it’s what they’re used to. Indiana forces teams to shoot 34% from beyond the arc on 19 attempts per game. The 3-ball isn’t going to be there as much and they’re going to need to look for other ways to score. Paul Millsap although he had a great Game 1, struggled mightily against Indiana during the regular season, averaging 9 points and 9 rebounds in 29 minutes per game. He’ll be limited at times this series, which might make the Hawks settle for threes as their offense may face challenges but it’s really going to come down heavily on Jeff Teague’s shoulders and his ability to make plays for other guys and penetrate.

The most crucial thing for the Hawks is energy and playing harder than the Pacers. It sounds vague but for them it’s extremely important. The Pacers went 12-13 in the last two months of the season including a blowout loss at home to the Atlanta Hawks themselves. During that stretch their defense drooped in intensity and efficiency, their offense looked clueless and as a team they began to break down. Roy Hibbert called his team out for being selfish after a 13 point loss to the Wizards on March 28th, PER NBA.com:

“Some selfish dudes in here…Some selfish dudes. I’m tired of talking about it. We’ve been talking about it for a month.”

Larry Bird then got in on the mix and talked about blame, PER The Indianapolis Star:

One thing I’d be nervous about is pointing fingers… “‘Well, so-and-so isn’t doing this or that.’ I haven’t seen that, yet, but that’s a sure sign you’ve got a problem.”

Lance Stephenson and George Hill even had to be separated during a timeout during their blowout loss against the Spurs, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:

The Pacers are experiencing a leadership void at the moment and the only thing they’re racking up faster than turnovers and bad shots is finger pointing…During a timeout in the second half, George Hill got into a verbal confrontation with Lance Stephenson on the bench and they had to be separated by teammates.

It’s clear the Pacers barely got into the playoffs in one piece, they barely even got the 1st seed. Chances are they’re still dealing with issues they’ve decided to push aside for the purpose of the playoffs. However, if the Hawks, the clear underdogs here outwork and out hustle the Pacers, meaning scoring easy baskets, making the Pacers force things on offense and get in their heads, the Hawks have a very good chance of upsetting Indiana. The Hawks are together and have nothing to lose, even their GM said they’re built for the future, the Pacers are the ones on thin ice and the Hawks need to keep chipping away with intensity on both ends of the court, they can win this series. The fact that they won Game 1 in Indiana has already probably caused problems within the locker room, and the more they can fight the more it’s going to wear down the Pacers.

How Indiana Wins:

Indiana has to think about sitting Roy Hibbert for a lot of this series. Defensively, it’s going to be hard for the Pacers to play him the minutes he is used to. He can’t guard players on the perimeter and Pero Antic and or Mike Scott or pose a mismatch for the Pacers. They like to play on the outside and it pulls Hibbert out of the paint, which opens up driving lanes for everyone on the Hawks, especially Jeff Teague one of the best guards at getting into the key. Frank Vogel has a dilemma because the match-up for them isn’t great. Ian Mahimi should play more minutes as well as Luis Scola and even Chris Copeland who can spread the floor. Either way playing Roy Hibbert is an issue defensively and the Pacers would be better suited to match Atlanta’s small ball lineup than to try force HIbbert to make them pay on the offensive end, especially when he is in a funk. That switch however, changes the whole defensive identity of the Pacers. Without Hibbert on the inside protecting the rim, the paint is a lot less scary place to dwell if you’re the Hawks. Jeff Teague scored 28 points on them in Game 1, and will continue to if he can’t be contained on the perimeter and if Roy Hibbert can’t stay on the court (5 personal fouls in Game 1).

Offensively, I think ball movement and player movement is the key for Indiana. Atlanta isn’t an exceptional defensive team, and they play at a slow pace, perfect for the Pacers. A lot of the time when the Pacers aren’t scoring it’s because there is a lot of one-on-one play. That causes frustration and it causes players to get out of a rhythm and shots to be forced. If the ball is touched by everyone on every possession and the defense is constantly moved by them it makes everything easier for playmakers like Paul George, George Hill and Lance Stephenson. They’re not going to shoot the ball well, which is characteristic of them, but what they should target is the paint. The Hawks lack a true defensive presence down low, and the Pacers need to attack that weakness in their game. It means aggression from the beginning on the part of everyone, especially Roy Hibbert when he is in the game. And when he is, for however many minutes, he has to get the ball to do what he can to score. The Hawks will continue to play small ball if the pros of making him come out on the perimeter beat the cons of having to get pounded down low by him. Up till now, Hibbert has done nothing to impose his will on the game, and that’s his fault and his teammates fault of not getting him the ball. When he’s in the game if he makes an impact offensively, it forces the Hawks to match the Pacers lineup instead of the other way around. Lance Stephenson will also be huge for the Pacers offensively. The Hawks don’t have anyone who can guard him, and he should be someone the Pacers go to at the beginning of games to get into a rhythm because when he is fired up and on top of his game they are a completely different team.

As a team the Pacers have to stay together. Losing is bound to happen during the course of an 82 game season. However, pointing fingers, and getting mad at each other isn’t the way to lose. The Pacers have had a terrible 2nd half of the season and that continued last night in Indiana during their Game 1 loss. For the first time in a while, they are being doubted as contenders because of their funk and their inability to come together and figure out the problem. They cannot let losses or bad possessions or runs during the game get in their way. They can’t bicker or suffer any chemistry problems during the series because the hungry Hawks will jump on that and make it worse. The Pacers have to stay together and put all the individual differences aside and look at their common goal of winning a championship, meaning it’s time for them to man up and get back to thinking like champions even if they’re not playing like it on the court. A lot of basketball is mental, and a lot of their failures are coming from within them which is affecting their play on the court.

Who Wins:

This is tough. The Pacers are a better team but their issues within the team and on the court in the last two months are worrisome, especially for a team who is supposed to get at least to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Hawks didn’t think they’d make the playoffs and are complete underdogs here, with nothing to lose. Luckily for them, it seems like they got exactly the match-up they wanted. Their lineup poses huge problems for Hibbert and without him on the court they suffer defensively. Paul George’s matchup isn’t a walk in the park either, and I think DeMarre Carroll will pose big problems for George in this series. The Pacers have been deteriorating for a while now and I think the Hawks taking Game 1 shoved them even further into the self-dug hole the Pacers had made for themselves. They have momentum, they have the lineup advantage and they have nothing to lose – all dangerous assets for an underdog team. Although it won’t be easy, I see an upset in this series.

Final Prediction:

Hawks in 7.

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