This is probably the more subtle and the least attractive series among the 1st round match-ups. That’s not to downgrade the Pacers nor the Hawks as both are competitive playoff squads. It’s just that both are coming from small markets, both without a big star, and both who have flown very much under the radar throughout the entire season. Nonetheless, that could make this series even more interesting than many others due to that element of anything can happen. So let’s get down to it.
How Indiana Wins:
Indiana was blessed in getting the Hawks to match-up against to be honest. Not only because they lack an identity but because Atlanta doesn’t have fans. I mean they do, there are Hawks fans… You just have to do a lot of looking to find them. They get down on their Hawks quick and it really doesn’t feel like your playing away because of it. The fan-base doesn’t care and that gives the Pacers really home-court advantage wherever they go in this series. Indiana is 2nd in opponents points per game, giving up 90 a contest. They’re going to have to continue that defensive intensity through this first round series for them to win. They come into this series winners of one of their last 6 and in those 5 losses they gave up an average of 102.6 points a game. That will be the difference for them in the series, they only score 94 points a game so they’re going to need to count on their defense to take them to the next round. Defensively, I don’t think Al Horford will give them too much trouble down low considering he’ll be guarded by a trio of David West, Tyler Hansborough and Roy Hibbert – all very capable low-post defenders. Against Indiana this season, he’s only averaged 16 and 8. Now his scoring is still around seasons average but his rebounds down by 2. That may not seem like a considerable number but against the Pacers every rebound is essential. Indiana is tied for 4th in the league in offensive rebounds per game at 12.9. They love to crash the boards and keep possessions alive – something a playoff team must do in order to win games. If they can keep creating extra possessions on the glass against a team like the Hawks who are 28th in the league in total rebounds a game (48.3) than they can win this series with ease. That’s a major edge they have, they will probably out-rebound the Hawks in every game and their size up front may be too much to handle especially for a Hawks team whose power forward loves to play on the perimeter. They’ll have to watch out for Josh Smith because he is extremely versatile – possessing an ability to drive from the perimeter and work down low. He’s quicker than most 4’s they’ll throw at him so they have to force him to take jump shots because it’s the jumper spell that he consistently falls under. He’ll take a jump shot, and make it and then think he’s Steve Kerr and start shooting threes. Forcing him out of the paint will lower his confidence and make it easier for them to win. Jeff Teague is also a guy to keep an eye on, he’s not a standout name but he’s dangerous especially at breaking down a defense and getting into the paint. His penetration opens things up for guys on the perimeter like Korver and Stevenson so it’s important to keep him above the free throw line. They’ll also win this series if Paul George can take advantage of his defender. He’ll most likely be guarded by a Stevenson, or a Dahntay Jones. He’s taller, quicker and more athletic than both of those guys and will need to attack from the get go to put pressure on the Hawks as a team.
How the Hawks Win:
The Hawks win if they can keep Indiana off the glass. Like i’ve stated before the Pacers are one of the best rebounding teams in the league in terms of creating extra possessions. In the playoffs every possession becomes more important and they can’t afford to give the Pacers multiple opportunities on any possession. They’re a very solid defensive team themselves – only giving up around 97 points per game. They’re going to need Josh Smith and Horford locked in because both Hibbert and David West can light it up given the opportunity. Josh Smith is probably the key to them going home or not. He only averaged 13 and 6 against the Pacers this season and will need to put up at least 20-25 points a night for them to have a chance of winning. The Hawks are an offensively challenged team to say the least, and he’ll need to show everyone why he’s a max-contract type of guy by abusing the big men of Indiana. He can’t fall in love with jumpers and needs to put pressure on Indiana’s frontline to come and stop him from attacking. I think on the perimeter he’s quick enough to get by anybody that will be put on him and in the post he’ll have to utilize a flurry of moves to score. I think he should probably play in the high post or catch it one on one free throw line extended for him to have the biggest impact. Both him and Horford are going to need to be on their A game to match the intensity of Indiana’s frontline. Jeff Teague is also a big part of what Atlanta does offensively. He actually averaged 16 and 5 against Indiana this season and will need to be a reliable third scoring option for Atlanta if they want to win. He has to be able to get into the paint to open up the perimeter for shooting but also for his own confidence. He’s a young guard and will need to get going early. It also takes pressure off of Smith and Horford if he’s scoring from the perimeter. Atlanta is also one of the best three point shooting teams in the league – shooting at a clip of 37% a game. That will really be key for them due to how hard it will be to score inside on Indiana’s tough frontline. Their shooting will open everything up and give more lanes to Smith and Teague. Atlanta will also have to force turnovers against Indiana. The Pacers give the ball up 15 times a game on average and coincidentally, the Hawks score 18 fast-break points a game. They need to get out and run against Indiana who has one of the best half-court defenses in the entire league. Indiana already doesn’t take care of the ball, but if they can force their way into transition buckets than the Hawks may have a real shot at breaking down Indiana.
Who Will Win?
I’ll take the Pacers in this one. I think their advantage on the boards will be huge in creating extra possessions and their home-court advantage both in Indiana and somewhat in Atlanta will prove significant for them. I think Paul George is the best player in this series and he’ll have a good one against smaller, less quick defenders.
Pacers in 6.