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

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Atlanta Hawks vs. Indiana Pacers: Eastern Conference Round 1 Preview
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In order to move forward in the postseason, the Indiana Pacers are going to have to look back to how they played in the season’s first few months. The journey starts in Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 19 against the Atlanta Hawks.

The Pacers are a peculiar No. 1 seed.  They aren’t so much limping into the postseason as stumbling, bloodied and beaten, dragging a limp leg behind them.

Since Feb. 7, when the Pacers topped the Portland Trail Blazers in overtime to improve to an NBA-best 39-10, the team has sputtered to a 17-16 record and, according to NBA.com, been outscored by 1.1 points per game. The only playoff team with a worse scoring differential in that time is the one it will be playing.

Despite winning six of their final eight games to hold off the New York Knicks in the race—jog?—for the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed, the Hawks have gone 13-23 since February 1 and, like their opponent, struggled mightily to consistently generate points.

It isn’t a glitzy matchup, no, but what really matters isn’t how a team got in the postseason, but what they do from here on out. The test begins on Saturday.

 

Seeds: Atlanta Hawks No. 8; Indiana Pacers No. 1

Records: Atlanta Hawks 38-44; Indiana Pacers 56-26

Season Series: Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers Tied 2-2

Schedule for Series: Game 1 Saturday, April 19, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 2 Tuesday, April 22, 7 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 3 Thursday, April 24, 7 p.m. ET (NBATV); Game 4, Saturday, April 26, 2 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 5 Monday April 28, 8 p.m. ET (NBATV); Game 6 Thursday, May 1, TBA (TBA); Game 7 Saturday, May 3, TBA (TNT).       

 

Key Storyline For Atlanta Hawks

Injuries happen. They’re part of the game—any game really. So deal with them.

This is the sort of jock speak, machismo, that teams lean on in times of strife. Focus on what you can change, not what you can’t. Fix your gaze squarely, and exclusively, on the task at hand. But it doesn’t always work. There are some injuries that can’t be moved on from, can’t be transcended. They’re simply too devastating.

Dave Tulis
In hindsight, fans might come to see that this series was decided on Dec. 26, when Al Horford went down with a season ending pectoral tear. The Hawks are simply not the same team without the center.

This is precisely the sort of blow the Atlanta Hawks absorbed the day after Christmas, when center Al Horford tore his right pectoral muscle and had season-ending surgery days later.

It would be difficult to overstate how important Horford is to Atlanta and, conversely, how consequential his absence is for the Hawks. A Hawks team with a scoring differential of negative 0.5 on the season actually outscored opponents by 3.7 points per 48 minutes with Horford on the floor, per NBA.com.

Atlanta initially weathered the Horford injury well, leaning on Paul Millsap to keep pace with the rest of the East. “Millsap has made his presence felt. He's had to,” SBNation’s James Herbert wrote in January after the forward ripped off a 34-point, 15-rebound outing against the Boston Celtics.

That was then. This is now. With the full returns in, it’s clear the Hawks offense collapsed without its linchpin. According to NBA.com, in the 29 games before and including the night Horford went down, Atlanta shot 47.1 percent from the floor, 38.2 percent from three-points and scored 102.2 points per game, all top-10 figures.

Since the injury, the Hawks have sunk to 45 percent shooting, a 35.4 percent mark from three-points and a 99.8 points per game average.

In light of the Pacers’ struggles, if Big Al were around, this might be a series. With the center in street clothes, Atlanta will probably be happy to steal merely a game.

 

Key Storyline for Indiana Pacers

The Pacers can’t score points.

Before Feb. 8, Indiana was fielding roughly a league average offense, jump shooting its way to 102.5 points per 100 possessions, according to  NBA.com. Coupled with a dominant defense, Indiana was, at that juncture, outscoring opponents by a league-best 8.1 points per game.

That didn’t last. Since Indiana topped Portland to improve to 39-10, the Pacers offense has languished, scoring the fewest points in the NBA in that time and mustering an offensive rating that’s, according to NBA.com, worse than each team but the deliberately terrible Philadelphia 76ers.

The Pacers lame offense needs to return to form if Indiana hopes to advance far in the postseason.

This is not the stuff championships are made of.

In Awful Offense, an instructive and aptly titled series on the blog Eight Points Nine Seconds, Jared Wade identified slipshod screening, excessive isolation and general sloppiness as the three primary problems that have undermined the Pacers’ attack.

Wade is as befuddled by the Indiana "O" as most analysts.

Teams play bad during an 82-game season. Even teams with as much talent as the Pacers can stumble over their own feet for awhile. And mediocre play from a team that has been largely unimpressive since February began has become routine.

But not this.

This is something else. This is just some unexplainable, Bermuda Triangle-like phenomena that has sucked all life from the players on this team. They now roam the court like husks of once-talented humans who can no longer complete even the simplest of basketball tasks.

While the Hawks don’t figure to pose much of a problem—Atlanta is 14th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN—the Pacers need to right this ship, and fast, if they hope to advance much further than the postseason's initial round.

 

The X-Factors

Kyle Korver, for a guy who looks like Ashton Kutcher and shoots like Ray Allen, doesn’t get a lot of love. Let’s change that.

The marksman led the NBA in three-point shooting in 2013-14, with a scalding 47.2 percent mark from beyond the arc. That’s remarkable. This is even more so: It was the ninth straight season that Korver shot better than 43 percent from three-points.

Korver’s career-high 65.3 true shooting percentage, according to Basketball-Reference, also led the Association. It was the third straight year, and fourth time in five seasons, that he broke 60 percent.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Kyle Korver, or some look-alike, takes in a recent Lakers game.

Even though the Pacers play some of the stingiest perimeter defense in basketball—opponents hit just 6.7 triples per game against Indiana—the wing figures to play a prominent role in the Hawks attack.

Three-point shots are the great equalizer in the NBA. When upsets happen in the playoffs—and, from time to time, even No. 1 seeds fall in round one—they usually play an outsized role. In Kyle Korver, the Hawks have precisely the sort of sniper who could help them play David to the Pacers’ Goliath.

Indiana won’t go down easily, of course. And one of the main reasons why is mercurial guard Lance Stephenson. The defensive stopper, who’s somewhat overshadowed in the Hoosier State by Paul George and Roy Hibbert, was tremendous for the Pacers in his third NBA season.

Stephenson posted career-high averages of 13.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists for Indiana. The guard also finished fourth on the Pacers in win shares, per Basketball-Reference, and, according to BoxScore Geeks, led the team in wins produced. By the latter measure, Stephenson placed 14th in the NBA.

The real area in which Stephenson can make a difference is scoring. While he’s still learning to tailor his game to the needs of the team—“Stephenson’s baseline cuts produce some baskets and offensive rebounds, but he’s still learning to balance hunting his own and keeping the overall offense healthy,” Grantland’s Zach Lowe conceded earlier this month—he’s also clearly one of the Pacers' most credible threats on that end.

Ned Dishman/Getty Images
Indiana needs Lance Stephenson shots like this to go in early and often.

According to Basketball-Reference, Stephenson’s 56.4 true shooting percentage leads all Pacers regulars, as does his 49.1 field goal percentage.

He’s not a perfect panacea for what ails the Indiana offense, but he may be just what Frank Vogel needs to Lance the wound.

 

Key Matchup

Indiana needs Paul George to get going. And Atlanta needs DeMarre Carroll to stop him.

Many of Indiana’s aforementioned struggles can be pinned back on George, the early-season superstar whose anointing now seems a bit premature. The franchise goes as he does.

On Feb. 8, when the Pacers were sitting pretty at 39-10, George was a darkhorse MVP candidate, posting averages of 22.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 44 percent shooting, including a 36.5 percent mark from three-points, per NBA.com.

As you can see above, it wasn't that long ago that Paul George was being hailed as the NBA's newest superstar. The praise has quieted some since then.

Since Feb. 8, during which Indiana has barely broke .500, the fading star has averaged 20.4 points on 39.5 percent shooting.

The split is even more stark when we look at the Pacers’ individual wins and losses. In victory, George averaged 22.4 points on 44.2 percent shooting and a stellar 38.8 percent rate from three-points. In losses, these figures dipped to 20.3, 38.6 and 31.2. George, in others words, shoots better from behind the three-point line during wins than he does overall in losses.

To have any hope of escaping Indiana with a round one upset, the Hawks need George to look a lot more like the second guy than the first. And the man who will largely be tasked with this is Carroll, who, according to Fox’s John Manasso, “always draws the assignment of the opposing team's elite perimeter scorer.”

Carroll will have his hands full over the next couple weeks. The Hawks had better hope he's a capable juggler.

 

Predictions

It’s tempting to look at the Pacers’ recent struggles, which have persisted for an unusually long duration, and assume this simply is no longer the same team that took the league by storm back in November.

This wouldn’t be wise.

According to Benjamin Morris, now of FiveThirtyEight, analysts and observers place more weight on late-season performance at their peril. Not only is late-season success not more predictive of playoff performance than what happens earlier in the year, it—remarkably—actually carries less weight.

“Ultimately, I’ve concluded that there is no special correlation between late-season performance and playoff success,” Morris wrote in a 2011 post examining the surprisingly weak correlation between strong finishes to the regular season and playoff success. “In fact, the opposite is far more likely.”

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images
The Pacers strong early season performance shouldn't be ignored.

In other words, the Pacers of old might return.

Atlanta isn’t a perfect matchup for Indiana, however. The Hawks have plenty of shooters and, consequently, can space the floor in a way that gives Indiana’s otherwise stingy defense fits. And, on the other end of the floor, there’s no reason to be especially confident in Indiana’s ability to put the ball in the basket.

“I haven't had the best games against them, but it's the playoffs and it's time to change things up,” Hibbert conceded to the Indianapolis Star’s Candace Buckner after the regular-season finale.

Hibbert isn't alone. No one in Indiana has played their best basketball lately, regardless of the opponent. But, with the new season upon us, that soon might change. For a round, at least, the bet here is that it will.

Pacers win series 4-1.

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