Prediction: Pacers in 5
Despite Indiana’s semi-collapse late in the season, where they’ve gone 11-13 since the beginning of March, there is very little chance of the Atlanta Hawks upsetting the Eastern Conference’s number one seed (Indiana had lost five of their last seven to end the season last year and they took Miami to seven games).
Boasting the league’s second-best defense allowing 96.8 points per game, the Pacers shockingly allowed 103.2 points per game over the last six weeks of the season. Considering they are in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency, the Pacers are going to really have to lock it up if they are to have any chance of making a significant run this postseason.
Things haven’t gone much better for the Hawks either as they grasped the final 8th seed in an absolutely horrible Eastern Conference this season. As one of the worst rebounding teams in the league (28th), Atlanta doesn’t have the offensive firepower or defensive strength to go toe-to-toe with the Pacers. They’ll steal a game at home and then head to the off-season early.
How the Indiana Pacers win
To make this a short, effort-free series for the Pacers, they need to revert to their dominant powerhouse selves they were at the beginning of the season. Roy Hibbert needs to get his act together as he only averaged 2.3 points on 21.8% shooting during the last four games of the regular season. Hibbert hasn’t been active on the boards, slacked off on his rim protection duties and has been benched by coach Frank Vogel for his lack of effort.
Its impossible to win a championship without Hibbert, who anchored the Pacers last year, as they gave the Miami Heat a run for their money. The 7’2″ center is on the shortlist for the Defensive Player of the Year award and has imposed such vicious rim defense in the past that LeBron James developed a completely new shot to combat Hibbert’s defensive prowess.
Hibbert isn’t the only Pacer who has slumped at the close of the regular season. Paul George, who many considered to be a potential MVP candidate early in the season, had a complete meltdown during the final third of the season. George, who was shooting at elite percentages from all over the court, suddenly went ice cold. George shot 61% around the basket during the first half of the season; that number has dropped by a shocking 15 points to 46% during the second half.
The ability to take it to the rim is an integral part of any star perimeter player’s arsenal and George just hasn’t been able to finish his drives and lay-ups. His 3-point shooting has dipped to league average and his mid-range pull-up has fallen below 40%. Nonetheless, George still ranks among the top 20 players in defensive efficiency and has shown in the past that he has the ability to go off and play at LeBron-like levels.
However, David West will still take whoever guards him to school on his dazzling array of post moves and mid-range Js. Lance Stephenson has put together a career year and has posted the most triple-doubles of any player in the league this year. Anchoring the bench is CJ Watson, Ian Mahinmi, Luis Scola, and Evan Turner, all poised, dangerous basketball players. If Indiana’s starting five can mesh as one cohesive unit and the bench can hold onto leads, this might not even be a five-game series.
How the Atlanta Hawks win
Unless Jeff Teague turns into Magic Johnson, and Paul Millsap into Karl Malone, the Hawks’ chances of upsetting the Pacers aren’t very high. Millsap had a breakout year after his move to Atlanta from Utah (as evidenced by a selection to the All-Star game), but I still don’t see him being able to guard David West. Atlanta’s best player, Al Horford, won’t even be around for the postseason after undergoing surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle. The Hawks simply don’t have the talent needed to upset a Pacers team that is laden with it.
Nonetheless, for the Hawks to win, they need to get significant contributions from Louis Williams and Elton Brand off the bench. Williams had tremendous potential in Philadelphia, but he never broke out the way people thought he would after the Hawks awarded him a pricey contract. Brand has been shuttled around the league over the last few years, and he will really have to play like he did when he was with the Clippers, for the Hawks to keep up with Indiana’s front court. Back problems have limited Brand before, and he simply isn’t as quick or strong as he was during his days in Los Angeles.
Kyle Korver will have to make every three he takes and Shelvin Mack and DeMarre Carroll are going to have to play better than they ever have before. Will that happen? Probably not. But it’ll have to if the Hawks want to have any chance of winning this series.
David West vs. Paul Millsap
Jeff Teague vs. Lance Stephenson