The Atlanta Hawks, who just tanked to get the sixth seed, and the Indiana Pacers are settling in for the NBA TV special. If you don’t know, one first round series gets relegated to NBA TV, and for the past three to four years, the Atlanta Hawks were sent to NBA TV. This year? We might have them back with one of the best defensive teams in the league. A ton of intrigue in this series. Indiana has this impressive all-around game, while Atlanta works with two of their stars, their blossoming point guard, and an array of role players to help them. Let’s look at each team with a bit more depth.
Indiana Pacers: For much of the season, Indiana has been consistent on the defensive end, finishing first in defensive efficiency. However, they went by it in a 2K13-like fashion. David West is arguably their best player, George Hill is the key on the perimeter, Roy Hibbert changes the court’s dimension with his seven-foot-two size, but Paul George was the All-Star this season for Indiana. The point? The Pacers did it with no star player, and without Danny Granger, claiming the third seed in the East would equal to a pretty solid season. The two things that intrigued me about Indiana’s season is the disappearance (then reappearance) of Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson. After getting praise for his success in the playoffs against Miami, Hibbert started the season on a horrible streak, shooting 37% in the month of November and 40% in December. While Hibbert was still making a monstrous defensive impact, he was brutal for them offensively. Since the All-Star break, Hibbert is shooting over 50%, and before this April swoon, his defensive numbers were actually improving.
As for Stephenson, he’s been a pleasant surprise. Moving into the starting lineup at shooting guard, Stephenson has been a solid contributor. He’s been a solid fit defensively, and for the third-year player, he’s been able to fill in some of the spots needed with George moving into a more offensive-heavy role at small forward.
Player To Watch: Paul George (17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.8 steals, and 53.1 TS%)
George has provided everything and more for the Pacers this season. Thanks to an increased scoring load, his field goal percentage took a slight dip, but with George having the ball in his hands, he’s improved as an overall offensive player, doubling his assist output, and increasing his overall assists percentage. Against Chicago, George will be called upon to score the ball, but he can also double as an effective decoy for West and Hibbert. Thanks to his ability to be an effective rim attacker, George can kick the ball out to an open shooter. Along with attacking the basket, George is also excellent in hand-off situations, allowing him to shoot an easy jumper.
Atlanta Hawks: The Atlanta Hawks, while falling to the sixth seed, were a really good team. The Hawks finished the season 15th in the league in offensive efficiency, 10th in defensive efficiency, and 11th overall. After losing Joe Johnson to a trade, the trio of Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Jeff Teague did well in leading them, while quietly making them fun. All three are phenomenal passers at their positions, and that allowed head coach Larry Drew to play guys like Devin Harris, Kyle Korver, Ivan Johnson, Anthony Tolliver, and John Jenkins. With injuries to Louis Williams and Zaza Pachuilia shortening their rotation, the Hawks battled, and even though they fell to the bottom half of the Eastern Conference bracket, they have the look of a tough playoff team.
The role players will be interesting in this series. Kyle Korver has been the best three-point shooter this season, Ivan Johnson is just a classic bully at the power forward position, Anthony Toliver gives the Hawks a big body who can pull defenders out side of the paint, Devin Harris provides a change of pace off the bench for Atlanta’s offense, and rookie John Jenkins has dabbled as shooter in spot minutes. All five provide different things to this Atlanta team, and if they want to upset a talented Indiana team, they will need to play at their best.
Player To Watch: Jeff Teague (14.6 points, 7.2 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 54.3 TS%)
The biggest beneficiary of the Joe Johnson departure, the Hawks have trusted Teague with the ball in his hands more. The best thing about Teague is his ability to put it into overdrive in the playoffs. Against Indiana, i think he’ll face his toughest matchup in George Hill. Teague will have to put in effort from outside the arc, but he’ll also need to get pick and rolls going to force Hibbert outside of the basket. Along with Teague as a decoy, I’m curious to see how Atlanta finds him offensively. Again, Horford and Smith are great passers, and off hand-off plays, cuts, and off-screen attempts, Teague can really thrive in this series.
Prediction: Pacers in 5. I originally had Indiana winning the series in seven games. However, the Pacers are the better defensive team, and as I look at Atlanta’s roster, I don’t know who’s going to stop Roy Hibbert in the post. The Hawks have Al Horford, who’s good at scoring and moving the ball around on the perimeter, but Indiana could send David West to most likely dispatch him. Jeff Teague could take a step forward, but George Hill could also neutralize him. Those three concerns, plus Josh Smith long jumpers, and I’ll take Indiana to win in five, moving on to the second round.