Paul George #24 of the Indiana Pacers reacts after a timeout in the final minutes of their 98-85 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on April 24, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Those damned Indiana Pacers just don’t want to fulfill all of their regular season talk of how big and bad they were and how they were going to have home court advantage for a potential Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. Last night they entered Phillips Arena in Atlanta and proceeded to watch their 3-point defense wilt under the pressure of a second half barrage by the Atlanta Hawks (10-18 from 3 in the second half), ultimately falling 98-85.
The Pacers are now staring at a 2-1 series deficit, by no means an insurmountable deficit, but one that is unsettling when you factor in how ugly the Pacers look when you watch them play. As everyone gets geeked up with talk of the 8-1 upset, I thought I would look back at past 1-8 series matchups, focusing on teams that had won the first game of the series and seeing how the rest of the series turned out, as well as how the Hawks stack up against past 8-seeds that have won. I chose to focus on seasons where the NBA moved to a 16 team playoff format, the 1983-1984 season, giving us 30 years and 60 series of data with which to look at. (I didn’t include this year’s game because I wanted to focus on series that had already been completed.)
Over the last 30 years, 8-seeds haven’t fared very well against their highly acclaimed counterparts, owning a 10-50 record in first games. This covers teams that have entered the playoffs at 30-52, the ’86 Bulls, to the 50-32 ’08 Denver Nuggets, so basically it has not mattered what record the 8-seed has entered the playoffs with, they routinely start the series at an immediate 1-0 deficit. The Hawks this year fall towards the bottom end of that spectrum, as they limped into the playoffs with a 38-44 record, including a 14-23 record since February 1. Meanwhile, while the Pacers were certainly not lighting the world on fire since February, they were still significantly better than the Hawks, posting a 21-16 record and maintaining the top spot in defensive efficiency (99.3). All in all, it is surprising, despite the matchup problems that the Hawks give the Pacers, that the Hawks won last Saturday, much less by 20.
8-seeds that won Game 1
One thing that jumps out to me about the 8-seeds that have won their opening game, all but one was .500 or better, the ’93 Los Angeles Lakers (39-43) who defeated the 62-20 Phoenix Suns. From this aspect the, Hawks are the worst 8-seed to win a first game by virtue of their 38 wins on the season. However, in terms of win differential (18 between the Hawks and Pacers), the Hawks’ upset was just slightly above the average win differential of 16. What should give the Pacers cause for concern is, of the 10 series that have seen the 8-seed win game 1, all but one has either gone the distance or been won outright by the 8-seed in six games.
This means at the very least, the Pacers are going to most likely be pushed to the brink in a series they were hoping to use to work back into their groove, and show that their funk was merely about getting bored with the regular season. The Pacers can find solace in the fact that home court has been so important in the series, as the six series that went the distance, five were won by the 1-seed who was playing game 5 or 7 at home. A 2-1 series deficit is not the end of the world for the Pacers, as 1 seeds have been able to bounce back from this disadvantage 4 out of 7 times in the past, but it is the 3-1 deficit, as I will show, that the Pacers need to fight hard to avoid.
8-seeds that won the series
Looking at the five 8-seeds that won a first round series, the two things that stand out are that they jumped out to 2-1 series lead (the ’94 Nuggets are the only team that won a first round series while losing both of the first two games) and that all the teams that won a first round series had a winning record at season’s close. As we know, the Hawks did not finish the season above .500 and really showed no signs of offering more than a baby fight heading into the playoffs (14-23 in the last 2 months of the season). Likewise, the Pacers don’t have the greatest record to close the season (21-16), but they still managed to be seven games better than the Hawks which is a significant margin.
The thing that all 8-seeds who won had going for them was that they weren’t horrible like the Hawks down the stretch, with only the ’12 76ers posting an under .500 record (14-16 over the last 2 months). Furthermore, this series’ only cousin is the ‘We Believe Warriors’ upset of the Mavs in ’07 where each team shares a match-up advantage that caused an anchor of the 1-seed serious angst, whether it was the Dubs’ ability to send multiple defenders at Dirk or the Hawks’ ability to bust the Pacers’ funnel with their 5-out offense. But the similarities end there, because the Warriors got multiple players to raise their performance from the season while the Hawks have gotten some increased play by Jeff Teague and that’s it.
As for the other two 7-game series, the ’11 Grizzlies were fortunate enough to have Manu Ginobili miss game 1 and then not be fully healthy the rest of the series, while the ’12 Sixers watched Derrick Rose go down in game 1 for the rest of the series and Joakim Noah missed the last three games. The only injury the Pacers are suffering is to the mind and ego, but since it seems to be affecting the whole team, that could be even worse. However, as much as I wanted to find some historical connection to 1-seeds that had lost and this series, it truly seems like this is only a distant cousin of the types of series in the past, something that is semi-unexplainable, just like the Pacers’ second half collapse.
So can the Pacers win?
I have been down on the Pacers all season, but I still don’t think they are going to lose this series, despite the second worst offensive efficiency since the All Star break, despite the bad body language, despite the flummoxing drop in play by everyone in the Pacers lineup, and despite the obvious bad chemistry among the team right now. They get game 7 at home, and historically, if the 1-seed gets that far, they are going to win. For the Pacers, the biggest game of the series is going to be game 4, as four 7-game series that saw the 8-seed go up 3-1, three have been won in six by the 8-seed when the underdog closed it out on their home court. See how important home court is now.
This series, despite all the Pacers’ flaws that we love to harp on right now, they are just a shade worse in offensive efficiency 104.5-102.7 (just flip the numbers for defensive efficiency), something that could easily be evened with a Pacers win in game four. So as I am wont to do, I’m picking the team that has clearly more talent, trusting them to right themselves enough to win games 4 and 5, before losing game 6 and winning game 7 in a semi-blowout at home. So yes, the Pacers definitely have a chance, but it wouldn’t shock me if they just go belly up and lose this series in 6.