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What 1st Round Says About Indiana Pacers' Chances for Deep Playoff Run

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What 1st Round Says About Indiana Pacers' Chances for Deep Playoff Run
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Indiana Pacers are a team with some truly unique strengths, but also a few glaring weaknesses. That combination, along with a less-than-stellar history against their potential second-round opponents, make them a dubious bet for a deep playoff run.

Currently up three games to two on the Atlanta Hawks, the Pacers have used this series to show a few of the attributes that have made them a dangerous team all season long.

Indiana's size up front, which includes Roy Hibbert at the 5 and David West at the 4, gives it a huge advantage over every other Eastern Conference playoff team. And considering that they'll either be matched up with the New York Knicks or Boston Celtics in Round 2, that size figures to continue to be an advantage.

The Hawks tend to play lineups featuring more size than either the Knicks or the Celtics, so it's telling that the Pacers have essentially dominated the interior battle in Round 1 on every front.

In five games against the Hawks, the Pacers have used their size to post a rebound rate of over 55 percent, which is more than two percent better than their NBA-leading rate of 52.9 percent during the regular season.

Plus, the Pacers have thrown their bulk around on offense, which has generated over 30 free-throw attempts per game during the postseason. Only the hard-charging Denver Nuggets and even burlier Memphis Grizzlies have been to the line more. And with a team average of over 80 percent from the stripe, Indiana has actually scored the most points from the foul line of any playoff team.

Because the Pacers have done such a solid job on the interior against the Hawks, it stands to reason they'll have at least as much success against the Knicks or Celtics, who really only have one center (Tyson Chandler) between them.

Kevin Garnett is a competitor, but Hibbert dwarfs him in size to such a significant degree that the Celtics would almost certainly have to scheme in order to avoid a one-on-one situation on the block.

Unfortunately for the Pacers, Boston didn't have much trouble doing just that during the regular season, nullifying Hibbert's advantage and racking up a perfect 2-0 record against Indiana.

The Knicks split four games against the Pacers, casting doubt on whether Indiana's size advantage, which has been so helpful in Round 1, will really matter as the postseason rolls on.

Shooting is another key area that the Pacers need to sort out. During the playoffs, they've hit only 41 percent of their attempts from the field. Some of that is due to Atlanta's underrated defense, but just as much blame for the shortcoming belongs to a lack of floor-spacing shooters.

No player on the roster has shot the ball well from long range this postseason. Paul George has certainly tried, racking up nearly six three-point attempts per game in Round 1, but his 36 percent hasn't quite cut it. Besides, what the Pacers really need is for role players like Lance Stephenson (33 percent in the playoffs) and George Hill (36 percent) to keep defenses honest.

Indiana's postseason shot chart. Note the lack of green.

If Indiana could get some better perimeter shooting, driving lanes would open up for George and the middle of the floor would be less crowded for West to work around the elbows.

Generating quality shots isn't just about great ball movement or penetration; it's also about forcing a defense to cover the entire floor. Because the Pacers haven't been able to do that, their field-goal shooting has suffered.

Stepping back for a moment, there's still some doubt as to weather or not the Pacers are a lock to advance. The home team in Indiana's first-round series with the Hawks has won all five games thus far—and that's one of the biggest reasons to be skeptical about Indy's chances to go deep this spring.

There's no getting around it: The Pacers are a vastly different team on the road than they are at home.

In their three home wins, the Pacers have posted an average offensive rating of 116.4, which would easily have led the NBA during the regular season. Away from home, though, that figure drops all the way to 98.8, which would have ranked just below the Orlando Magic's fourth-worst mark during 2012-13.

On D, it's been the same story. Indiana has played terrific defense at home, allowing just 83.2 points per 100 possessions. Yet on the road, that figure spikes all the way to 102.1.

Great teams typically aren't subject to these kinds of home-road splits. Sure, it's generally true that players are more comfortable at home and tend to perform slightly better in a comfortable environment, but disparities that large indicate a bigger problem. Defensive effort, in particular, shouldn't wax and wane to such an alarming degree.

And this isn't just a playoff issue, either. During the regular season, Indiana's 19 road wins were the third fewest of any playoff team. Only the Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks won fewer contests away from their home arenas.

Assuming the Pacers draw the second-seeded Knicks in Round 2, Indiana's lack of home-court advantage could prove fatal.

Stepping back, it's clear that the Pacers have plenty of size, a dynamic (but inconsistent) star in Paul George and the type of defense that should allow them to compete with any remaining playoff team in the East.

But if Indiana can't leverage those advantages against a weak Hawks team, or even muster a consistent effort on the road, why should we expect it to be able to do so against tougher competition?

Until the Pacers prove they can leverage their size, generate and knock down quality shots and level out their home-road splits, they won't be a team with the right mix of skills to make a deep playoff run.

 

*All stats via NBA.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated

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