NBA Playoff Preview - Indiana vs. Atlanta
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NBA Editor
Indiana Pacers: 1st Seed, East (56-26)
Atlanta Hawks : 8th Seed, East (38-44)
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Indiana Pacers figured they could contend with the Miami Heat this season and dethrone the two-time defending NBA champions for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The two Eastern beasts slumped down the stretch, but it was Indiana who benefited from the struggles to claim home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs. But not too many pundits feel the Pacers are headed toward the postseason with the right mindset.
The Pacers will be matched up again with the No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks in the first round and split four meetings with them in the regular season. Luckily, the Pacers have homecourt advantage because they have struggled mightily in Atlanta, losing 14 of their last 16 games there.
Indiana and Atlanta met in the 2012-13 playoffs and the Pacers disposed of the Hawks in six games. The Pacers and the Hawks will face each other in the postseason for a sixth time and Game 1 is scheduled for Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Indiana had the best home record in the NBA during the regular season at 35-6 and outscored opponents inside the Fieldhouse by 10.5 ppg. Indiana fell one win shy of the best home record in franchise history, as the 1999-00 club went 36-5 as the home team.
Having clinched a postseason berth for a fourth straight season, it wasn't all smooth for the heavily favored Pacers, who finished the season with a 6-9 record in the final 15 games. Head coach Frank Vogel became frustrated at times with his starters down the stretch and even rested them for a game they won with a cohesive effort from the reserves.
Pacers president Larry Bird still has confidence in Vogel, whose team was one of, if not, the best on defense.
"I back Frank 100 percent," Bird said. "There was some things early on this season, like I said, I went to him and told him that we needed to clean everything up."
Vogel and the Pacers get a clean slate for the playoffs and hope to achieve what they set out to do in the fall. The Pacers probably still have a bitter taste in their mouths after losing to the Heat in seven games in last season's Eastern Conference Finals.
The Hawks are in the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season and needed both late-season heroics and a collapse by the New York Knicks to punch a ticket.
Under the guidance of first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks managed to tread water in an otherwise dreadful Eastern Conference and hope to move past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010-11. The Hawks have been bounced in six games in each of the last two conference quarterfinals.
Atlanta, which is in the playoffs for a second time since 2007-08 without even reaching 40 wins, lost six in a row in late March and started to feel the heat. However, the Hawks won six of the next eight games to get back on track and a 98-85 win over the Heat on April 12 sealed the eighth spot.
"I'm happy for all the guys," Hawks guard Jeff Teague said. "We worked so hard all year. Injuries and everything that can happen to a team happened. We were able to still make it to the playoffs."
Atlanta may have had an easier time continuing their playoff streak had center Al Horford (pectoral surgery) been able to stay healthy. Horford averaged 18.6 points in 29 games. Teague and Paul Millsap carried the scoring load the rest of the season.
BACKCOURT: Lance Stephenson had a breakout season for the Pacers. He averaged career highs in points (13.8), rebounds (7.2) and assists (4.6) and led the NBA with a franchise-best five triple-doubles, moving past Detlef Schrempf's mark of four during the 1992-93 campaign. In a big win over Oklahoma City, the multi-talented Stephenson had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. He will be a problem for the Hawks in the playoffs, but had just 8.7 points in three meetings in the regular season. George Hill posted 10.3 points and is a talented point guard, but nothing to brag about. He does have plenty of playoff experience, though.
Teague is a proven scorer in this league and will make a difference for a Hawks team desperate to get out of the first round. Teague ended the season on a hot streak and averaged more than 15 points, while averaging over six assists. Teague, the East's Player of the Week for April 7-13, played a key role in helping Atlanta back into the playoffs and has a slight scoring edge over Stephenson in the battle of backcourts. Kyle Korver will rely on his 3- point prowess to shoot down the Pacers. Korver doesn't play much defense and made at least one 3-pointer in an NBA-record 127 straight games. The sniper is good for about 10 points a game.
FRONTCOURT: How can you count against Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert? Not too many are, but the triumvirate came up a bit short toward the end of the regular season. Whether it was fatigue or the simple fact they knew they were good remains to be seen. George has transformed himself into one of the NBA's elite and will surely give Atlanta headaches on both ends of the floor. George led the Pacers with 21.7 points and 1.9 steals. West has to be the most ferocious and animated, and is a matchup problem in the paint. West posted 14.0 points and 6.8 boards this season. Hibbert had some struggles at season's end and is Indiana's savior inside. Hibbert could have had a better year, but had 10.8 points and 6.6 rebounds with 2.3 blocks.
Hawks center Pero Antic became a regular in the starting lineup when the calendar turned to January and the Hawks hope the young native of Macedonia will not get stage fright in the first round. First-year Hawk Millsap posted more than 17 points and eight rebounds this season, and put the team on his back when star big man Horford went down. Millsap and Teague will do most the scoring, while the former was the only player in the NBA averaging at least 16.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 block. He has great footwork underneath and is tough to stop with his back to the basket. DeMarre Carroll found his niche with the Hawks and is averaging a career-high on points after struggling to fit in with a few other teams.
BENCH: Both coaches have some bright spots on the bench and understand the strength of this series will come from the starting five. Not everybody can play a full 48 minutes, so it's up to the reserves to provide some relief. The Pacers made some moves during the season to shore up the bench with Evan Turner, who was a starter with Philly. Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, LaVoy Allen, Ian Mahinmi and Rasual Butler are at Vogel's disposal. Andrew Bynum won't play in this series due to injury, but he could be counted on down the line.
Budenholzer doesn't have the weaponry like Vogel on his bench, but Lou Williams and Mike Scott could possibly start somewhere in this league. Williams is the Hawks' leading bench scorer with more than 10 points per game and Scott is right behind. Back in February, Scott scored 30 points and made 6-of-7 3-pointers, becoming the first player in franchise history to come off the bench to score 30 points and hit six 3-pointers in 30 minutes-or-less. Shelvin Mack and Cartier Martin will spell the starters as well.
COACHING: Budenholzer was an aide to Gregg Popovich and had spent the previous 19 seasons with the elite San Antonio Spurs. That's a situation to start a career, but will it be enough to guide the Hawks past Indiana? Probably not. Vogel and the Pacers are on a mission and he has made it clear that the starters in particular need to regain their focus. Complacency may have settled in at one point for Vogel's squad, but now it's time to continue what the Pacers set out to do back in October. Vogel is 18-17 in the playoffs and said the Pacers have to contain better, especially behind the 3-point line.
PREDICTION: Vogel wants Hibbert to post hard and bang the glass against Antic inside, where the Pacers have been deadly this season. Do that, and the series could be over in five or six games. The Hawks are bound to win at least one game at home. Indiana was a house of horrors for visiting teams and the Pacers owe it all to their defense, which was second in opponents' scoring (92.3). Losing in seven games to the Heat in last season's East Finals prepared Indiana for a promising 2013-14 season. The revenge quest begins now with a fresh start in the postseason.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: PACERS in SIX (again)
04/18 13:23:30 ET