The 2014 NBA postseason is just brimming over with surprises.
Between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs struggling against the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks, respectively, the Washington Wizards taking down the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers on the brink of doing the same to the Houston Rockets, it's been a crazy couple of weeks. But if you rewind your brain a few months, nothing would be as insane as a certain Eastern Conference series.
The Indiana Pacers, previously thought to be title favorites and the proud owners of a historically excellent defense, are struggling to beat an Atlanta Hawks squad that was below .500 in the regular season and still doesn't have Al Horford?
What? Is that even possible?
It is possible.
In fact, it's actually happening, as the Hawks have won three of the first five games in their series and now have the potential to close things out at home during Thursday night's Game 6.
Atlanta has been one of the most surprising teams this postseason, but how long can they keep things going? That's become the primary question for this team, but it has to be answered with another series of inquiries.
Can They Finish Off the Pacers?
Short answer: Absolutely.
Not only have the Hawks taken a 3-2 series lead, meaning they only have to win one of the final two games in the opening-round series in order to advance, but they've thoroughly demoralized the Pacers more often than not.
First, take a gander at the offensive and defensive ratings of the two teams through the first five contests:
|Atlanta vs. Indiana|
|Team||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating|
The Hawks have managed to outclass the Pacers on both ends of the court—duh, seeing as they've outscored them throughout the series. But it goes beyond the numbers, because the strategies employed and the eye tests both favor Atlanta rather significantly.
While the Indiana offense has stagnated due to a combination of poor shooting and nonexistent offensive schemes, Atlanta has thrived by spreading the court out and forcing the Pacers defense to expand as much as possible. Mike Budenholzer has been 10 times the coach Frank Vogel has been, making adjustments whenever necessary and watching as his sideline counterpart has struggled to do the same.
The Pacers are content to run isolation plays and watch as the shot clock ticks down. The Hawks have changed their plays and consistently taken advantage of every mismatch on the court.
Quite frankly, the series is closer than it should be, at least in terms of statistics, simply because Indiana used a fluky small-ball lineup led by Chris Copeland to make a huge run in garbage time during Game 5.
The Pacers are technically the No. 1 seed, and they're playing like the polar opposite. The Hawks are technically the No. 8 seed, and they're playing not quite like the polar opposite but more like a No. 3 or No. 4 seed. The Kinks would be proud, because these two squads are proving this really is a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world.
As Matt Dollinger hints at for Sports Illustrated, Atlanta's chances of advancing almost seem like—gasp—a sure thing at this point:
"Now we’re five games into the series and it’s tough to imagine Atlanta not winning after watching them take a 3-2 lead with yet another convincing win, looking once again like the team more resemblant of a No. 1 seed."
How exactly can this Pacers squad be expected to emerge victoriously from consecutive must-win contests when A) they've looked incompetent, B) one of them is going to be on the road, C) no one has any confidence and D) they haven't won back-to-back games against playoff-caliber competition in months?
Maybe Indiana somehow puts everything together. Perhaps Roy Hibbert will remember that he's playing basketball and not posing for sculptures during the course of action. There's a chance someone other than Paul George will figure out how to score the basketball. I suppose it's possible that everyone on the Atlanta roster simultaneously tears both ACLs in the first quarter of Game 5.
But that is not the sound of a star who's confident in his team.
And with that, let's stop focusing on the futility of the Pacers, and start giving a bit of credit to the Hawks.
What Has Sparked This Team?
Everyone once in a while, the stars align.
Sometimes those celestial bodies produce an eclipse; other times they lead to conditions and situations that seem to promote huge upsets in sports. Whatever's going on up in the sky seems to be fulfilling the latter option for the Hawks.
This is not an incredibly talented basketball team without Al Horford in the lineup. It's a fringe All-Star (Paul Millsap) being surrounded by a lineup filled with outside shooters and a dynamic point guard who can get to his spots on the court. That's the recipe for a low-level playoff squad in a weak Eastern Conference, which—last time I checked—is exactly what the Hawks are.
That said, Atlanta has maximized its talent by taking advantage of every possible mismatch on offense while playing hard-nosed defense that won't let Indiana win through isolation plays alone.
By starting Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver, Millsap and Pero Antic, Budenholzer has ensured that every single player on the court can knock down triples. And through five games, four of the five starters have already hit seven three-point attempts apiece. Antic has only connected on three, but he's lofted up 18, so he's still spacing out the court.
When everyone is a perimeter threat, Indiana's defense is going to get spread out. The big men can't handle the interior and close out on jump-shooters after switches, and Roy Hibbert has been completely marginalized on the defensive end of the court, to the point that he should be considered unplayable in Game 6.
That's one reason Atlanta is winning the series, but there are two more major ones.
Teague has been able to absolutely abuse George Hill when he has the ball, blazing around him and into the paint, from where he can either finish the play himself or kick the ball out to an open shooter. Hill, even though he's a solid and physical defender, can't handle the speed of this particular point guard, and the Hawks have capitalized on that advantage.
He's averaged 18 points and six assists per game thus far, but his impact goes far beyond those numbers because his penetration and ability to dash around screens has left the Indiana defense severely compromised.
Then there's the third reason: The Pacers look inept.
The combination of these three factors—universal court spacing against a team that can't handle it, a water bug of a point guard who is torturing a physical defender and a team that is crashing and burning in such a way that calling it a dumpster fire would be insulting to dumpster fires—is what's spurring Atlanta on into the second round, assuming it can hold on and win one of its next two games.
But can it happen again? The Washington Wizards are waiting to provide the answer.
What Happens Against Washington?
Let's run through each of the three factors and see if they translate to the potential second-round series.
Atlanta would likely run out the same starting five and attempt to space out the court, but it would be significantly harder to win a series through this novelty act. Not only does Washington have plenty of time to prepare for it, but it also has a mobile set of defenders and a group of big men who aren't limited to the paint.
Washington's numbers against the Chicago Bulls don't tell much, seeing as we're dealing with a five-game sample against an offensively limited team, but the Wizards gave up 6.4 triples per game on 33.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The Pacers have allowed 11.8 and 39.1, respectively, to the Hawks.
Over the course of the regular season, here's how each of Atlanta's potential opponents defended downtown:
|Protecting the Arc|
|Team||Three-Pointers Allowed Per Game||Three-Point Percentage Allowed|
|Indiana (Pre All-Star Break)||6.1||32.9|
|Indiana (Post All-Star Break)||7.4||36.9|
|Washington (Pre All-Star Break)||7.8||38.0|
|Washington (Post All-Star Break)||8.0||38.0|
Indiana began the season suffocating perimeter marksmen quite well, but once the interior defense's complete lack of mobility was exposed, the overall unit suffered accordingly. Washington, on the other hand, remained consistent throughout the year and understands its identity in that facet of the game.
While the Pacers were better at shutting down the three-point arc, the Wizards at least maintained their competence over the course of the season, leaving them less susceptible to gimmick offenses that can heat up and expose confusion and poor rotations in the blink of an eye.
The Wizards proved that their defense is one of the toughest in the league, beating Chicago at its own game to close out the series. They held the Bulls to just 33.3 percent shooting and a season-low 69 points in Game 5, proving they can win games when the offense isn’t on fire (Washington scored just 75 points on 40.5 percent shooting).
Basically, it was supposed to be tough to score on Indiana; it's going to be even harder for Atlanta to score against Washington.
And it'll be tougher still because Wall spent the season developing into a tremendous defensive point guard, one who has all the speed necessary to keep up with Teague. The Wake Forest product is going to have quite a bit of trouble getting to the spots he's found with ease against the Pacers, and that just throws a major wrench into Atlanta's offensive plan.
In their four matchups this season, Wall has held the Hawks floor general to only 15.5 points and 5.0 assists per game on 37.1 percent shooting from the field and a 41.7 percent clip beyond the arc. Unfortunately for the Hawks, that three-point shooting—which is the only one of those numbers above his season average—came in small doses, as he took only 12 triples over the course of those four games.
Then there's the final key.
Indiana has been mired in a humongous—dare I say historical?—slump that has left them playing the worst basketball of their season. Washington, meanwhile, is doing the exact opposite, gaining momentum during the postseason and lending credence to those who believe they could emerge from the Eastern Conference.
Perhaps 2-of-3 on those keys might have been workable for a fiery Hawks squad that seems to genuinely believe it's a team made up of worldbeaters.
But 0-of-3? That isn't so workable.
Atlanta has made for a nice story thus far, but most good things usually come to an end. Even if the Hawks do hang on to beat the Pacers and become the latest No. 8 seed to take down the team with the best record in the conference, their wings are going to be clipped by the Wizards in the second round.
However, you can sleep easy, Hawks fans. It'll still be one of the more memorable postseason runs in recent Atlanta history.