But the Pacers will have to win two best-of-seven series’ to get there, starting with Atlanta.
In addition to a series between two teams who struggled down the backstretch of the regular season, this is a rematch of last year’s first round. Indiana took that series in six games as Paul George averaged 18.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5 assists.
Here is your breakdown of the Pacers’ road to the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Final Regular Season Record: 56-26
Playoff Seed: 1st in East
First Round Opponent: Atlanta Hawks (38-44)-8th Place in East
Top Three Storylines Going into NBA Playoffs
The Pacers enter the playoffs of this “all-in” season with a mixed outlook. The Eastern Conference runners-up a year ago came into the 2013-14 campaign with the explicit goal of securing the No. 1 seed. Coming within one win of the NBA Finals, Indiana felt that the only thing missing was a Game 7 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Frank Vogel’s men executed their plan to perfection, jumping out to an Eastern Conference-best 40-12 record before the All-Star break.
From there things began to unravel for the league’s most heavily played starting five. They stumbled to a 16-14mark in the second half of the season and dealt with uncharacteristic infighting as the losses piled up.
And on the flip side of Indiana’s lofty expectations loomed potentially catastrophic consequences should they come up short of the Finals. The Indianapolis Star’s Bob Kravitz detailed how Frank Vogel could unimaginably be on the hot seat:
“That might sound absurd given the job he's done since he took over as an interim coach. The feeling here is, he's this team's long-term coach and should be allowed to correct the many things that have gone wrong with his team the last two months.
But know this: Vogel is not Larry Bird's guy.”
Brian Shaw, former assistant and current head coach of the Denver Nuggets, even suggested to Dave Hyde of the Sun-Sentinel that a failure to get past Miami should result in a blow-up of the team’s core.
Despite the free fall, the Pacers got what they came for. Miami handed them the top seed in the East by falling to the Washington Wizards 114-93 in the 81st game of the season. As long as it’s around, Indiana will have the ability to start and (if necessary) end each series at home until the Finals.
And so, Indiana welcomes the Atlanta Hawks—a team that supposedly didn’t have the playoffs on its agenda—to town as it kicks off a make-or-break postseason run.
But which Pacers team will show up? The one that lost back-to-back games just once through the first four months of the season; or the group that dropped nine of 15 to end the year? The team that beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in its penultimate game of the season to help secure that home court advantage; or the one that lost to Atlanta by 19 points the week before?
With the 29th-ranked offense since the All-Star break, it’s legitimate to question whether Indiana will even get an opportunity to challenge the Heat for Eastern Conference supremacy.
- Andrew Bynum, knee, unknown: Bynum, brought in specifically to give the Pacers frontcourt depth to frustrate Miami, played all of 32 minutes over two games after signing in late January. He’s missed the last 15 games on the inactive list as the training staff works to limit his swelling. It’s unclear whether he will be ready for the first round, or any round for that matter, but the Pacers will welcome him for any amount of minutes he can give.
- Pero Antic, ankle, day-to-day: The 31-year-old rookie, filling in for Al Horford, has dealt with soreness from a stress fracture in his ankle suffered in late January. Despite missing two of the team’s last four games, Antic has said he will play through the pain, meaning Elton Brand will come off the bench.
- Gustavo Ayon, shoulder, out for season: Ayon, Horford’s first backup, has been out since February 19 with a shoulder injury that required surgery.
- John Jenkins, back, out for season: Jenkins played his last game back in December and had season-ending surgery on his lower back.
- Al Horford, chest, out for season: Atlanta’s franchise player has been out since tearing his right pectoral muscle on December 26. Though he returned in the playoffs after tearing the left pec in January 2011, he won’t be making a comeback this time around.
Key First Round Matchup to Watch: David West vs. Paul Millsap
Heading into the playoffs without Al Horford for the second time in three years, the Atlanta Hawks will live and die by free agent prize Paul Millsap.
Millsap was Atlanta’s leading scorer (17.9) and rebounder (8.5) in Horford’s stead. His 19.8 PER was 29th among guys who played at least 50 games.
A space-eating beast on the blocks, Millsap also has a mid-range game to match that of jump shot specialist and power forward counterpart David West. Millsap’s .411 shooting percentage from 10-14 feet ranks 24th among forwards who took at least 50 such shots.
West’s sweet spot is a bit farther away. His .522 clip from 15-19 feet trails only Amir Johnson and Chris Bosh at the position. The Pacers’ second leading scorer is likened to a drill sergeant for his stone-faced competitiveness and bulldog nature. Indiana will need his consistency, as Paul George has been susceptible to streaky play as the go-to guy.
Whether George goes for 43 like he did to Portland the first week of December or shoots 37 percent from the field as he did all of March, West has to be on the elbow draining jumpers and banging down low with Millsap all series.
Offensively, Millsap benefits from a more spaced and fast-paced offense in Atlanta. Pero Antic sort of looks and definitely plays like Carlos Boozer, only with three-point range. If he can be effective from outside, Roy Hibbert will be forced to cover more ground on help defense, giving Millsap more one-on-ones with West. West has no such luxury with Hibbert clogging the paint. And while Indiana could simply switch West onto Antic, Millsap’s quickness would give the slow reacting Hibbert fits.
But Indiana actually had Millsap’s number this season, holding him to just 8.8 points per contest and 31.1 percent shooting in their four meetings. West, on the other hand, averaged 15 a game on 50 percent shooting.
The Pacers enter the series as overwhelming favorites, and can find solace in the fact that they have a number of guys who can shoulder the scoring burden on any given night. Atlanta, on the other hand, absolutely needs Millsap to win this matchup—and by a large margin—if they want to advance.
X-Factor: C.J. Watson
Many people will likely call Lance Stephenson the X-Factor, but let’s buck the trend.
Much has been written about the sources of Indiana’s second-half woes.
Team chemistry, selfishness, fatigue.
How about no C.J. Watson? The backup point guard missed 17 games starting March 5. Indiana lost 11 of them.
One of the team’s foundational weaknesses on offense is a lack of reliable three-point shooting. Only two playoff teams shot a lower percentage this season.
Watson hit just under 52 percent from deep after the All-Star break and a ridiculous 8-for-11 in his three games back from injury. Better three-point shooting will help facilitate ball movement, another one of Indiana’s problems.
Larry Bird’s midseason overhaul of the second unit—shipping out Danny Granger while bringing in Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner—hasn’t panned out particularly well, which is significant for a team that receives the third fewest points from its reserves.
Rotations do shrink and starters play more in the postseason, but that actually makes bench minutes more important and Watson gives Indiana one of the best backup point guards in the playoffs.
Look for Watson to spend time with either Hill or Stephenson in the backcourt, allowing them to play off the ball rather than creating their own shots.
Keys to a First Round Team X Victory
The remedies for much of what’s gone wrong in Indiana read like vague clichés. Egos need to be put aside. Players have to trust Vogel and one another. Vogel must manage personalities. Not a lot of tangible on-court stuff.
The short answer is that the core Pacers simply need to play better. Their field goal percentage since March 2 is the lowest in the NBA while they have allowed nearly four more points per game than during the first 60 games of the year.
Luckily, Atlanta is still Atlanta—a sub-.500 team—so it’s not as if Indiana comes in as the underdog. Just an underachieving favorite.
But the Pacers would do well to make quick work of the Hawks. If the visitors can steal an early game they might just start playing hero ball the rest of the series, making Indiana grind out every game until the buzzer.
A few things need to improve if the top seed in the East is to dispatch the bottom seed in timely fashion:
Hibbert needs to play big boy ball: The All-Star center ended the regular season in quite the funk. Check out the disparity in this table of his stats divided between the first 60 games and last 21 (he sat out one game):
|Roy Hibbert's Late Season Struggles|
|First 60 games||11.6||.461||7.5||2.5|
|Last 21 games||8.5||.369||4.3||1.6|
The most staggering part of that table is the three rebounds and nearly one block per game less in the latter part of the year. As the fourth option it’s not so devastating for Indiana when his offensive numbers take a hit. But it is a problem when the big man’s defensive play takes a dive. He anchors the league’s best defense, the source of Indiana’s success.
If Hibbert can put aside his issues with “selfish dudes” and get back to All-Star status, Indiana’s size will overwhelm the smaller Hawks who have just one player over 6’10” (Antic at 6’11”).
The wing defenders need to clamp down: Led by Kyle Korver and Cartier Martin, Atlanta thrives on the three ball. Only Houston shoots it more and only New York gets a larger percentage of its points behind the line. If the Hawks want to make Indiana uncomfortable from the get-go they’re going to have to do it from behind the arc.
Fortunately for the Pacers they surrendered the fourth lowest three-point percentage on the year, so they know how to defend the perimeter. Lance Stephenson will have his hands full chasing Korver around, through, and in between screens, but at 23 he’s got one of the best motors to close out jump shots. He limited opponents to just 37.1 percent shooting from 20-24 feet, right there with Thabo Sefolosha (37.0) and Avery Bradley (37.4).
If Stephenson, George and Hill contest every time an Atlanta player raises up from beyond the arc, it will limit what they can do offensively and make the series much easier.
Movement!: No team in the playoffs had a smaller percentage of its field goals come from assists. This translates to a lot of isolation shots and drives from George and Stephenson. To be fair, Indiana is one of the better isolation teams, but as soon as one or two players’ shot fades the offense becomes stagnant.
The Pacers aren’t going to overhaul their offensive schemes at this point, but it would behoove them to manufacture easy baskets rather than rely on George’s pull up jumpers.
This explanation from Indy Cornrows’ Tyler Bischoff gets at the heart of the issue:
“The screening is lazy; when is the last time the Pacers got multiple open threes off of pin-down screens? The cuts are lazy; when is the last time a guard cut behind Roy Hibbert posting up and got an easy layup?
On top of weak screens and bad cuts, the Pacers off ball movement is atrocious. And the result is turnovers and contested jump shots.”
Among playoff teams, only the Trail Blazers, Nets and Mavericks allow more points per 100 possessions than the Hawks, despite them playing at only the seventh fastest pace. So it’s not as if Indiana is facing Chicago.
If Vogel stays on his guys to make aggressive cuts and avoid wasting possessions with shot clock-beating heaves, the Pacers should be able find their offensive rhythm again.
Thought to be a lock for at least the Eastern Conference Finals—with a legitimate case to get to the Finals—until March hit, there’s serious doubt whether Indiana will even reach a rematch with Miami.
While the East’s top seed is certainly not entering the postseason playing its best ball, Atlanta has only found its winning formula in the last two weeks. They’ve also gone through two losing streaks of six games and one of eight all in the second half of the season.
These two teams split the season series 2-2, with Indiana’s half of the wins coming on either side of the All-Star Break by an average of seven points. Atlanta ended a three-game losing streak at home back in January and gave the Pacers a 19-point beat down on April 6 that featured Roy Hibbert’s infamous second-half benching.
It’s up to the Pacers to not beat themselves up on offense. If they can crack the low 90s in points this series should be over in five games, though Atlanta will give it everything they’ve got to spite GM Danny Ferry and his nay-saying.
Looking past the first round, the Pacers would face either the Bulls or Wizards, and the answer to which they’d prefer is an easy one.
In three games, the Wizards managed just 73 (loss), 66 (loss) and 91 (win) points. Though Chicago mustered 89.5 points per game in its four tussles with the Pacers, Indiana was no better at 89.75.
One of these potential opponents has only three contributors with any significant playoff experience. The other is making its sixth straight postseason appearance with its core intact.
Indiana would likely enter the second round as the favorite against either of these teams, but some have dubbed Chicago the playoff team nobody wants to see.
The Bulls’ relentless defense—the only to match Indiana’s prowess over the course of the entire season—wears teams down, especially ones that already sport slow offenses. But Indiana has the edge in terms of potential scoring firepower. As balanced as the Joakim Noah-anchored offense is, having D.J. Augustin (14.5 points) as your leading scorer in the playoffs is the definition of trouble.
Unless the Pacers have to slog through seven games to barely get past Atlanta, they should be able to outlast Chicago in a defensive nerd’s dream matchup.
Unfortunately, they’ve shown too many cracks this season to prevent Miami from making a fourth trip to the NBA Finals. With Dwyane Wade healthy thanks to his minutes monitoring program, Miami will have its full playoff rotation.
Though the East’s two best teams split their season series, LeBron James has not lost a playoff series to an Eastern Conference team in a Heat jersey.
Should these two teams square off, It will be interesting to see how the George vs. James matchup plays out after the whole mentor-mentee shenanigans that went down in early March.
A lot still has to go right for Indiana to make it that far, and the team could be in for a big makeover if it doesn’t.
*All stats courtesy of ESPN.com and NBA.com