The Atlanta Hawks have proven themselves to be a matchup nightmare for the top-seeded Indiana Pacers.
Despite holding a late lead in Game 6 that would have closed out Frank Vogel’s floundering club, though, the Hawks allowed Indy to finish the game on a 16-4 run.
Now the series will come down to a deciding Game 7.
The ongoing theme in the series has been Atlanta’s spread-five offensive scheme. It has rendered All-Star center Roy Hibbert useless. The 7’2” skyscraper is averaging 4.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game while shooting 30.3 percent from the field through six games.
His struggles have reached—or perhaps solidified—historic levels after posting back-to-back donuts in the scoring column during Games 5 and 6.
Only other player other than Roy Hibbert w/ consecutive scoreless playoff games after making All-Star team? Jim King in 1968. @EliasSports— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 2, 2014
Despite playing just 12 minutes in each of the last two contests, Hibbert managed to rack up four personal fouls during both outings without scoring a point.
At times, Atlanta has looked as if it would run away with this series. Its ineptitude from beyond the arc, however, has been the team’s demise of late. In the past two losses, the Hawks have shot 20-of-66 from distance (30.3 percent).
Despite cashing in on less than one-third of its attempts from long range, Atlanta has kept firing away. The rotation is getting all the open looks it could ever ask for. The players are simply not making them count.
Mike Budenholzer’s crew will have to shake its cold snap from three-point land or start mixing things up by attacking the basket more frequently.
If it fails to do so, the Pacers will avoid an upset—if we can really call it that at this point.
Seeds: Indiana Pacers No. 1; Atlanta Hawks No. 8
Series: Tied 3-3
Schedule for Series: Game 7 on Saturday, May 3, 5:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Key Storylines for Atlanta Hawks
The catalyst for Atlanta’s success in the first round has been point guard Jeff Teague.
When the 25-year-old is attacking the basket and orchestrating the offense, the Hawks have proven to be a formidable foe. He’s shooting just 40.6 percent from the field, but averages of 19.8 points, 5.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game have helped make up for the lack of efficiency.
Unfortunately, Teague can’t win this series by himself. Paul Millsap poured in 25 points and eight rebounds in Game 1, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll combined for 48 in Game 3, and the unsung tandem of Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack exploded for 47 points in Game 5.
Even with the matchup problems they pose, the Hawks won’t be able to come out of Indiana victorious without contributions from role players.
Pero Antic has been an absolute no-show by shooting a paltry 18.9 percent from the field and 13.6 percent from three. Will he finally start knocking down some long balls in the series-deciding game or will Budenholzer have to utilize a short leash by relying on bench players?
The Hawks will get open looks. Indy’s perimeter “defense” has made that increasingly clear. They just can’t keep hurting themselves by whiffing on those opportunities.
Key Storylines for Indiana Pacers
How did it get to this point?
If you told me at the beginning of the 2013-14 season that holding a five-point lead on the Hawks at halftime of Game 6 would be seen as “progress,” I’d chuckle and promptly dismiss the idea without another thought.
And yet, here we are. The Pacers are sputtering like a 1971 Ford Pinto.
Their All-Star center looks far more comfortable cheering on sidelines than he does running up and down the court, ESPN.com reports their leader on the sidelines is "coaching for his job" and wins are met with relief rather than the usual Indy swagger.
The solution? Vogel has to bite the bullet and continue to go small.
I was against the decision, because Indiana’s championship aspirations are tied to Hibbert regardless. Benching him, destroying his already-shoddy confidence and not giving him a shot to redeem himself wouldn’t help matters.
Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal, however, took the opposite stance:
Glue his 7’2” frame to the pine and don’t allow him to remove the warmups he wears before the opening tip until the Pacers are back in the locker room. If he wants to stand up and cheer, that’s perfectly fine, but he shouldn’t be able to cheer any of his own contributions.
Hibbert may return to prominence with a more favorable matchup, but this isn't the time to hope for that.
In truth, the entire supporting cast of each respective team falls into the category of “X-factors.”
In terms of narrowing that spectrum a bit, the backup big men get the nod.
Scott has been much more consistent than the 31-year-old rookie, Antic—which isn’t saying much, but still. He knocked down a ridiculous five three-pointers in Game 5, and while I don’t expect a performance like that to crop up again, he can certainly be a spark plug off the pine when called upon.
As for Indiana, anyone who spells Hibbert from racking up fouls and sucking wind from trying to close out on shooters can be the difference.
Be it Luis Scola, Mahinmi or Copeland, that guy has to bring something to the table. Rebounds, a blocked shot, perhaps a hustle-play tip-in—any of those contributions would suffice.
Neither of these rosters is offensively adept, so the 50-50 balls are something to look out for.
In short: Who has more desire to win this game and prove critics wrong?
Key Matchup: David West vs. Paul Millsap
Millsap and West will be going toe-to-toe in the box score during Game 7, just as they have been all series long.
The Hawks’ key offseason acquisition has been more consistent on a game-to-game basis, but West has found his rhythm after a rough start.
The 33-year-old Xavier product posted eight points in Games 1 and 2, but led his team to victory during the fourth quarter of a win-or-go-home Game 6. He finished with 24 points (12 in the final period), 11 rebounds, six assists and two steals.
“He’s our rock,” Vogel told the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com) about West. “There’s no other way to put it.”
When the final matchup of the season between these two teams reaches the final buzzer, the performances of West and Millsap will be the difference. These guys will have to match each other’s intensity by crashing the glass and taking over offensive possessions.
As a basketball fan, I want to believe that the Pacers will somehow right the ship, get their collective confidence back and entertain the NBA community with another closely contested Eastern Conference Finals series with the Miami Heat.
Of course, that's assuming the two-time defending champs get there.
At this juncture, though, what has Indy showed on the court that instills confidence?
Which team will win Game 7?
Hibbert is a shell of himself, the perimeter defense has been atrocious and the team’s collective body language hasn’t painted a pretty picture.
The Hawks are an inexperienced group playing without their best player (Al Horford), but they’re also playing with nothing to lose.
All the pressure is on Indiana to salvage this series with a Game 7 win.
Just consider this: The Hawks have shot a putrid 30.3 percent from long range in their last two losses and still had a legitimate chance to win both games. If Atlanta starts knocking down threes early and often, it will put the crowd—and the Pacers' players—on edge.
Vogel finally made adjustments by benching Hibbert, but he may regret not doing so sooner.
Prediction: Hawks defeat Pacers 97-91