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

Paul Knepper@@paulieknepContributor IIIApril 18, 2013

Josh Smith vs. Paul George will be a key matchup in the Hawks-Pacers series.
Josh Smith vs. Paul George will be a key matchup in the Hawks-Pacers series.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Eastern Conference is wide open after the Miami Heat, and the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks are two of several teams with their sights set on a trip to the conference finals. 

Atlanta asked for the Pacers when they sat their starters in the season finale, with the No. 5 seed still in play. The contrast between the Hawks' uptempo offense and Indiana's stifling defense should make for a compelling series.

Seeds: Atlanta Hawks No. 6; Indiana Pacers No. 3 

Records: Atlanta Hawks 44-38; Indiana Pacers 49-32

Season series: Tied 2-2

Playoff schedule: Game 1 Sunday, April 21, 1 p.m. ET (TNT), Game 2 Wednesday, April 24, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBA TV), Game 3 Saturday, April 27, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN), Game 4 Monday, April 29 TBD, Game 5 Wednesday, May 1 TBD, Game 6 Friday, May 3 TBD, Game 7, Sunday May 5 TBD

What Everybody's Talking About

This is Atlanta's sixth consecutive trip to the playoffs, but they have yet to advance past the second round. 

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All eyes will be on versatile forward Josh Smith, who will test the free-agent waters this summer. Smith is seeking a maximum contract and this is his final opportunity to show teams that he is worth it.

The Pacers' hallmark is their defense and rugged style of play. Frank Vogel's club led the league in defensive efficiency, surrendering just 96.6 points per 100 possessions (via ESPN.com.)

Swingman Paul George had a breakout season for the Pacers, earning a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. However, power forward David West was the team's most consistent player and veteran leader. 

What Nobody's Talking About 

Indiana likes to push teams around down low with West and center Roy Hibbert. Atlanta can negate the Pacers' size advantage by playing their bigger bodies along the front line, specifically at center, with Al Horford at the 4 and Smith at the 3.

West is a very difficult matchup for Smith, and the Hawks could use Smith's athleticism on the perimeter. The rangy forward frustrated George at times during the regular season, something starting small forward Kyle Korver is not able to do.   

West, an unrestricted free agent after the season, continues to fly under the radar, but he's been an integral part of the Pacers' success over the last two seasons.

Don't Forget...

Indiana and Atlanta both finished in the bottom third of the league in bench scoring (via HoopStats.com.) The series could hinge on which team receives a lift from its reserves.

Hawks guard John Jenkins came into his own at the tail end of his rookie campaign, recording three 20-point games in April. If he gots hot, the Vanderbilt product could swing a game in Atlanta's favor. 

Key Matchup: Al Horford vs. Roy Hibbert

Hibbert had a disappointing season after signing a monster deal with the Pacers over the summer, though his ability to protect the rim remained critical to Indiana's stifling defense. He averaged 3.3 blocked shots per 36 minutes (via Basketball-Reference.com) and blocked 11 shots against the New Orleans Hornets on November 21, as seen below.

Horford had his finest season for the Hawks, averaging 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds for the Hawks. The two-time All-Star has a solid mid-range jumper, which will pull Hibbert away from the basket, freeing up driving lanes for Jeff Teague and the rest of the Atlanta guards. Horford can also use his low-post moves to get the Pacers center in foul trouble.

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