Indiana Pacers Can't Afford to Overlook Anyone in the Playoffs Now

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 15, 2014

Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) drives against Atlanta Hawks small forward DeMarre Carroll (5) in the first  half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore

A No. 1 playoff seed is supposed to mean something. It's supposed to signal season-long supremacy, communicate near invincibility in the playoffs and come attached to a cushy first-round matchup barely worth showing up for.

The Indiana Pacers' No. 1 seed doesn't mean any of those things.

Indy locked up the East's top spot after the Miami Heat dropped an April 14 contest to the Washington Wizards. Under normal circumstances, that development would have been cause for celebration among the Pacers and their fans.

But nothing about the Pacers has been normal lately.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 1: Indiana Pacers players Roy Hibbert #55, Paul George #24, Lance Stephenson #1 and George Hill #3 wait to resume play action against the Atlanta Hawks in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NBA Playoff
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Granted, securing that first seed represents the culmination of Indiana's explicitly stated goal. There's probably some measure of joy, or at least satisfaction, involved. More than anything, though, the Pacers are feeling relief.

Looking ahead, Indy will enjoy home-court advantage for all of its prospective series this spring. With an NBA-best 35-6 mark on its own floor (including 10 wins in 13 games since the All-Star break), that'll be no small edge. In theory, home court was so valuable to the Pacers because it was going to help tip the scales of the inevitable, otherwise balanced Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat in their favor.

Maybe that's still how things will play out. Maybe the Pacers will shake off chemistry issues, fight through fatigue and fix the broken offense that turned them into a sub-.500 team over the past six weeks. Perhaps they'll rediscover the stifling defense that made them the NBA's best team during the first 50-plus games of this season.

They'd better, because the statistical breakdown from this season reveals the Pacers' startling duality.

Indiana Pacers' Pre- and Post-All-Star-Game Splits
GamesORtgDRtgNetRtg
Before52102.293.6+8.6
After2999.8102.5-2.7
NBA.com

Basically, Indiana was a team nobody could beat for two-thirds of the season before turning into one everybody could beat.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact cause. Situations like this are never simple. Some natural regression to the mean is in play, as is the very real effect of the Pacers getting a little too caught up in reading their own press. Somewhere along the way, they forgot who they were.

For what it's worth David West, the team's unquestioned emotional leader, thinks his team learned its lesson and is ready to put this ugly stretch behind it, per Mike Wells of ESPN:

Then you get out front, nobody doubts you because you have a five-game lead and everybody is pumping you up. I don't think we handled that the best. Only way you can deal with it is to go through it and experience it. That's what we've done.

Indiana must forget its recent past in order to avoid disaster in the present because its first-round tilt with the Atlanta Hawks won't be a typical No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup. Put simply, the Pacers could absolutely lose this series.

We've sufficiently belabored the fragile state of the Pacers overall, but we should also take note of their worrisome history against the Hawks. They split four games with Atlanta which, on its own, should say a lot about how seriously the Pacers should take their opponents.

More than that, Indy may have hit its absolute nadir when it scored a franchise-low 23 first-half points in a 107-88 loss to Atlanta on April 6.

Frank Vogel disgustedly pulled his starters in the first quarter in that game, and he also benched Roy Hibbert, whose personal slide has been steeper than any other Pacer's.

In the aftermath of that low point, Vogel observed, per the Associated Press (via ESPN): 

He looks worn down. He's a 7-foot-2 player who has played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He's given good effort but he looks to me to be worn down. Combine that with the fact that they have a 3-point shooting 5-man most of the game. It's a difficult matchup.

Difficult indeed.

Per Adi Joseph of USA Today, if the Hawks repeat the tough task of snatching a game in Indianapolis, things could get very interesting:

The Hawks have been playing better down the stretch than the Pacers, which isn't a huge accomplishment. If Atlanta can steal one of the first two games in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers have the best home record, they could create some unrest in the Indiana locker room. Also, Teague has the ability to dominate Hill in that pivotal matchup.

The Hawks can put five three-point shooters on the floor at once, and they're not shy about hoisting triples. On the year, only the fast-paced, trigger-happy Houston Rockets attempted more three-point field goals than Atlanta, per NBA.com.

Of course, the Pacers limited opponents' attempts from long distance more effectively than anyone else this season, so those stats might seem like a pair that amount to a wash. Maybe they will.

Then again, maybe Pero Antic, the Hawks' bearded, utterly unique rookie center, will drag Hibbert away from the bucket with his perimeter skills. Even if Antic can't get hot, he'll at least make Hibbert cover areas of the floor he'd prefer to avoid.

INDIANAPOLIS - APRIL 6: Pero Antic #6 of the Atlanta Hawks takes a shot against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 6, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or usin
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

For a guy as worn out as Hibbert, the extra energy required to honor Antic could have profound effects.

Look, the Hawks are a gimmicky team that nobody would confuse for a good one, but you don't need to be good to beat the Pacers these days.

Just look at some of Indy's losses since the All-Star break: The New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Hawks all notched victories. The Pacers have gone 9-13 since March 4, and it's not like their wins have been all that impressive, either.

A pair of victories over the Philadelphia 76ers, another deuce against the Detroit Pistons and one apiece against the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks do not make for a rosy playoff outlook.

The Pacers are vulnerable. Not just against the Hawks and their floor-spreading attack but against everyone they'll potentially face as the postseason progresses.

Apr 13, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (21) reacts after dunking against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Oklahoma City 102-97. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

If the accumulated fatigue and interpersonal strife that resulted from the Pacers' relentless push to the top of the East render them too weak to take down even the softest available opponent, well...all that work will have been for nothing.

Indiana got the No. 1 seed it so desperately wanted, but it may have come at too heavy a cost.

Realistically, the Pacers are still probably too good to lose to Atlanta. And they might be stout enough to fight their way to the Eastern Conference Finals after all. But nothing's guaranteed now—not even with the top seed secured.