Ranking Potential First-Round Opponents for the Indiana Pacers
Paul George and the Indiana Pacers have reason for excitement come the 2013 playoffs. Ideally, if they avoid certain opponents in the first round, their momentum and chances of making a deep playoff push will skyrocket.
Therefore, which teams should they specifically hope to draw in the first round? Further, which teams should they avoid?
The Pacers are currently atop the Central Division and are situated as the second seed in the Eastern Conference. With a high seed, it would inhibit team morale if they meet a playoff-tested, proven foe right off the bat.
Indiana's core possesses the defensive grit to make major noise come this spring, but matchups play a vital role in this. They are still relatively young (their superstar, George, is just 22 years old), and the presence of veteran Danny Granger is questionable going forward.
Because of this, they are by no means a lock for the Eastern Conference Finals or even the conference semifinals. The wrong matchup could spell doom for this bunch.
This is why the right opposition is imperative for the Pacers in the first round, and this list breaks down who they should long to play initially while creeping toward who to avoid.
5. Atlanta Hawks
Despite being 1-2 against the Atlanta Hawks, the Hawks would be the ideal first-round matchup for the Pacers.
The Hawks don't have much within their personnel that's intimidating. Aside from Jeff Teague, their guard play is incredibly weak, largely because playmaking scorer Lou Williams tore his ACL in January.
Josh Smith and Al Horford provide the Hawks with a couple versatile big men who are difference makers, but the Pacers bolster one of the league's best front lines in George (when playing small forward), David West and Roy Hibbert.
This front line should be able to neutralize Smith and Horford, while Indiana's guards should exploit Atlanta's.
Plus, Atlanta is just 15-18 on the road, while Indiana is 26-8 at home. With the Pacers having home-court advantage, it would be highly shocking to see an upset in such a series.
Prediction: Pacers in five
4. Milwaukee Bucks
The Pacers are also 1-2 against the Milwaukee Bucks, but they would still be a very reasonable first-round draw.
The Bucks are a .500 ballclub (32-32) and clearly don't have the overall well-rounded playing style that Indiana possesses. They particularly don't have the defensive intensity, as they give up over 100 points per game (Indiana is second in the league in points allowed: 89.9).
Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis could create trouble for Indiana, because both are potent scorers capable of catching fire. However, outside of these two, their depth chart is rather suspect.
Therefore, it's unlikely that the Jennings-Ellis tandem gets the best of Indiana four times in seven games.
Prediction: Pacers in five
3. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets would make for a much more intriguing clash than the Hawks and Bucks. The Nets are 2-0 against Indiana and have a plethora of assets posing concern.
Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez are all capable of dominating games, presenting Indiana with three elite weapons requiring defensive focus.
Brooklyn arguably has more firepower than Indiana, because they have numerous shot creators (Williams, Johnson), low-post threats (Lopez, Andray Blatche) and hustle players/defenders (Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans, Reggie Evans).
The likelihood is that the Nets will land at the No. 4 or No. 5 seed and meet someone else in the first round, but that could all change if the Nets mightily struggle in their upcoming West Coast swing.
If this happens, then the Pacers will have their hands full with a very talented roster.
However, Indiana's defensive consistency has been a staple all season, which would likely help them contain Brooklyn's threats enough to survive.
Prediction: Pacers in six
2. Boston Celtics
One team the Pacers should distinctly evade is the Boston Celtics, namely because of their playoff experience.
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are as fierce of competitors as anyone. They will not lie down easy.
Strangely, without floor general Rajon Rondo, Boston has actually played better, compiling a 17-5 record since he tore his ACL.
What's more, the Celtics are 2-0 against the Pacers. All these indications point toward this potential opening-round matchup as one of worry for Pacers fans.
The positive is that Indiana is the NBA's top rebounding squad, while Boston rests at nearly the bottom (29th). Aside from Garnett, the Celtics are iffy up front. Hibbert and West thus present major problems for Boston's aging club.
Due to the Pacers toughness, they would likely withstand the feisty Celtics, but this wouldn't be an easy bout. One thing is for sure: This series would certainly be compelling from an excitement standpoint.
Prediction: Pacers in seven
1. Chicago Bulls
The Pacers must secretly hope they avert their division rival, the Chicago Bulls. While they'd surely exude confidence if they encounter them, this is far from optimal.
The reason for this is simple: Derrick Rose.
According to ESPN Chicago, Rose's return appears imminent. If he is anything close to his usual self, the Bulls suddenly become a potential title contender. With Rose consistently playing in 2010-11 and 2011-12, they led the league in wins during both campaigns.
The Pacers are 3-0 against Chicago in 2012-13, but this showdown takes on a whole new flavor when Rose is active. I'm sure every Pacers player would agree with this.
With this said, the conclusion here is not that Indiana is incapable of beating the Bulls when Rose is playing. The Pacers are playing at a high level and can give anyone in the Eastern Conference a run for their money.
But, they should conveniently avoid the Bulls because this possible draw, more than any other, could spell an early exit for the Pacers. With Rose in uniform, the Bulls surge to a level that potentially only the Miami Heat can match.
Prediction: Bulls in seven