Ripple Effects of Indiana Pacers' Epic Comeback

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Ripple Effects of Indiana Pacers' Epic Comeback
USA TODAY Sports

The Indiana Pacers can all breathe a collective sigh of relief now that their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks is finally over.

It may have taken seven games, but the Pacers avoided becoming just the sixth No. 1 seed in NBA history to lose to a No. 8 seed.

Be it their internal struggles or just a bad matchup with Atlanta's speed and outside shooting, Indiana certainly seems glad to be moving on. David West told Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star:

I won't miss (Atlanta and its style of basketball). It took us a couple of games to figure them out on the glass, the long ricochet rebounds they were getting. It took us a few more games to figure out how to cover (Kyle) Korver and those high screens he comes off of. Tonight, we put it all together. We defended the pick-and-roll with (Jeff) Teague, we forced him into some tough finishes. We forced (Paul) Millsap into some tough finishes … Ultimately, I felt like we were locked in enough to pull this series out.

Now with the Hawks out of the way, Indiana must face the Washington Wizards and their dynamic backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal whom they beat twice in three regular-season meetings.

How will their series win against the Hawks carry over to the Wizards, and what does a rejuvenated Pacers team mean for the rest of the East?

 

Momentum vs. Wizards

While Washington would have felt pretty good had they gotten to face a 38-win Hawks team in the second round, they instead face an upstart Pacers squad.

Indiana took two of the three regular-season games, but the Wizards did win the most recent contest in dominating fashion (91-78 on March 28).

Quite possibly the biggest concern for the Pacers this postseason has been the play of center Roy Hibbert. Often benched for long stretches for his ineffective play against the Hawks for the first six games, Hibbert broke out for 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in the series finale.

Players like Pero Antic and Paul Millsap gave Hibbert fits on defense with their ability to play outside the paint and knock down three-point shots. Hibbert now faces a more friendly, and traditional, opponent in center Marcin Gortat of the Wizards. While he averaged 13.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks for Washington this season, Gortat isn't a threat from deep. He last attempted a three-pointer on Nov. 3, 2013.

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Hibbert vs. Gortat will be a key matchup to watch.

Paul George also seems to have rediscovered the game that abandoned him for stretches of the regular season. He finished the series against Atlanta having averaged 23.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists.

George is already expecting big things from Hibbert against the Wizards.

"When Roy is locked in offensively, his defense is off the charts; that's when he becomes special,'' George told Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star. "It's good to see him get his confidence, because this next series is going to be his series.''

If Hibbert is truly back, he may be the Pacers' key to victory. Washington's guard combo of Wall and Beal love to get to the rim. It will be Hibbert's job to make sure the two stay away from each other as much as possible.

Judging by his last game and the more favorable matchup, expect Hibbert to regain his early-season form against the Wizards.

Indiana as a team matches up better. It will now be up to their execution and ability to forget all the struggles they fought through the series before in order to beat Washington.

 

Another Meeting with Miami?

While they may not publicly admit it, you just know every member of the Miami Heat was watching the Pacers-Hawks series with unique interest.

Miami has knocked Indiana out of the playoffs the past two years, but certainly not without a fight. Last year's heavyweight bout lasted seven rounds, with Hibbert dominating the Heat's big men game after game.

Looking to take home their third-straight NBA championship, it was clear the Heat's biggest obstacle in the Eastern Conference would be the Pacers. After all, Indiana finished with the better regular-season record at 56-26, knocking off the Heat twice.

A date in the conference finals seemed inevitable until the Hawks pushed the Pacers to seven games. Now seemingly vulnerable, do the Heat still need to worry about Indiana as much?

Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick sure thinks so, writing:

The Pacers and Heat should meet at some point this season, with a shot at the NBA Finals at stake. It's only right, to settle their scores. Perhaps, in time, the Heat and their fans will harbor similar hostility for other squads in their conference. After all, the ill will toward Indiana festered in a relatively short period (two competitive series plus a regular season), and the Pacers only became the primary adversary because others like the Celtics and Bulls receded due to age and injury, respectively. But, for now, the Pacers, flawed and fractured, remain the best bet for a compelling Eastern Conference championship series. Heat fans won't cheer their survival, but they'll ultimately relish the opportunity to boo them later.

Miami must first battle the only team it didn't beat in the regular season, the Brooklyn Nets. Indiana faces a tough Wizards team that pulled off an upset of the Chicago Bulls.

While both face a tough test in the second round, another meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals is still very much possible. After the Pacers' strong showing against the Hawks in Game 7, some may even call it likely.

 

Indiana's Future

Had the Pacers dropped their opening series to Atlanta, many feel that head coach Frank Vogel would have lost his job.

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Even with the win, is Vogel completely safe?

Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star isn't so sure.

This is merely speculation on my part, based on a very small number of conversations with team President Larry Bird during the season, but I don't think Vogel survives an early flameout, for two reasons. One, Bird has never been a big Vogel guy; he supports Vogel, but he's never been a major Vogel proponent. My sense is Bird would rather have a more veteran presence, someone who will hold players accountable and rule with more of an iron fist. Second, Bird has said in the past he believes coaches have a three-year window to maintain the attention of players. After three years, they tune out coaches — even Bird, who walked as the Pacers coach after three years and an NBA Finals appearance. Vogel is in his fourth season.

While beating the Hawks may have gone a long way for Vogel returning, a series win against Washington may be needed for him to stay.

The Pacers could have also been facing a major roster shake-up had they not been able to adjust to the Hawks' small-ball style of play.

Hibbert and West together suddenly looked very slow and not so good at spacing the floor. Their bully-ball style of play, one that appears to be dying out, was suddenly quite ineffective against the Hawks' versatile bigs.

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

While many NBA teams have the personnel to go to a smaller, quicker lineup when needed, Indiana struggled with this transition. There's a good chance that either Hibbert or West would have been moved this offseason had Atlanta finished their exploitation of the first five games. As it stands, the Pacers now get to play the more traditional post set of Gortat and Nene. This is a matchup that allows Indiana to play its bully-ball style, if just for one more series. Still, this may be enough to convince the front office to keep both on board for next season.

Had they been sent home after just one round, we would have likely seen some major changes to the Pacers coaching staff and roster.

While no one's saying everyone's job is safe just yet, the Pacers' comeback series win may have created a lot more stability in the franchise for next season.

 

-GS

 

All stats via basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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