Jan 8, 2011; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith (5) goes up for a shot as Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (24) defends during the first half at Philips Arena. The Hawks defeated the Pacers 108-93. Mandatory Credit: Josh D. Weiss-USA TODAY Sports

Hawks vs Pacers: Game Preview

Only in the Eastern Conference could a team miss its best player for the first 29 games, see its lone 2012 All Star struggle mightily, and remain 4th in the conference standings. That has been exactly the case for the Indiana Pacers as Danny Granger has yet to see the court this season and Roy Hibbert has not even averaged 10 points per game on 40.2% shooting (43% TS%). However, Indiana comes into Philips Arena having won 7 of their last 8 competitions.

In Hibbert’s place, David West has stepped up in a contract year to average similar marks to what he achieved with Chris Paul in New Orleans. His 18.4 points per game leads the team. Similarly, in Danny Granger’s absence, Paul George, the third year player out of Fresno State, has led the team on both ends of the court. His Josh Smith-like line of 16.3 points, 7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals and .8 blocks per game has been impressive, as has his defense, routinely guarding the opponent’s best wing player. He has been a major cog in leading a top three defense in terms of points given up per possession.

Most impressive is their tough perimeter defense. The Pacers are the best in the league in that area, giving up only 31.2% shooting from beyond the arc. Despite Hibbert’s nightmarish offensive start to the season, he ranks in the top 3 in blocks per game with 2.8 in only 28.8 minutes per game.

On offense, the Pacers’ cupboard is rather bare. They have leaned on George Hill, fresh off a long contract extension, to average 15.2 points and 5.2 assists and pace an offense that is ranked in the bottom three of the league. Like the Hawks, they have a hard time getting to the rim, another bottom 3 area, and heavily rely on jump shots from Hill, Lance Stephenson, and George to stay afloat.

In the last matchup, the Hawks rode an 18-0 run to stave off the Pacers 89-86 on November 7 earlier this year. The game was won on the glass, with Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia taking down 23 rebounds together en route to a 51-41 team advantage in that category.

Truthfully, the key to this game is simply good health, as many Hawks are currently nursing injuries. Josh Smith sat out most of the fourth quarter against the Cavaliers with a sprained hip flexor and Morrow did the same in the second half with a sore hip. Devin Harris is not expected to play with a sore foot and Ivan Johnson is questionable with an illness. Luckily, the Hawks will have Stevenson in the rotation tonight after sitting the first game of the back-to-back.

Should either of Josh Smith or Ivan Johnson not be available, it will be the responsibility of Horford, Pachulia and even Anthony Tolliver to keep the large Pacer front court off the offensive boards, an area in which they are in the top five in rebounding rate.

Good shots will be at a premium tonight so limiting second chance point might swing the outcome tonight. Look for a low scoring affair in this matchup between two of the top 5 defenses in the league.

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