After a long, hard-fought 82-game schedule, it all comes down to this.
The Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers will square off in a best-of-seven series starting tonight at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in what is sure to be an entertaining series.
The big storyline this year for the Hawks was the season-ending injury suffered by team centerpiece Al Horford in late December. The Hawks went into a tailspin in the months following Horford’s injury, dropping from 3rd place in the Eastern Conference to on the brink of missing the playoffs altogether before rebounding and ultimately securing the No. 8 seed. The Hawks ended the season with a -0.5 scoring differential despite outscoring opponents by 3.7 points per 48 minutes with Horford on the floor.
Its noteworthy that Atlanta initially weathered the post-Horford storm well, mainly due to inspired play from All-Star forward Paul Millsap. However, the team could not sustain efforts, and ended up going on an eight-game losing streak in February and another six-game losing streak spanning February and March that dropped them into a very compromising situation.
Atlanta, facing missing out on the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, went 7-3 over its last 10 games to eek out the final playoff spot in the East.
The Pacers, meanwhile, have faced recent struggles of their own. After going 33-7 over the first half of the season, Indiana was a pedestrian 23-19 over their last 42 games. A major reason for this has been the disappearance of All-Star center Roy Hibbert, who is shooting just 23.5 percent in the month of April and has averaged just 3.2 rebounds over his last 13 games, both abysmal statistics for a center. Pacers coach Frank Vogel isn’t too concerned with his team’s recent play, however.
"“I think we’re a confident group,” coach Frank Vogel said Friday. “We all know we’ve struggled a little, but we’re excited about the playoffs and we’re excited to get started.”"
Looking ahead to how the teams will match up this series, its important to point out where each team excels and where they falter.
Here are three things to watch as the series begins:
Mismatches: The Pacers have seven players on their roster 6’8″ and above, and much prefer to pound the ball inside while playing a steady half court offense/defense. The Hawks, while they are also able to play this style, can run much better than Indiana and are able to put all five starters on the 3-point line, which could really stretch Indiana out and make it uncomfortable. It will be interesting to watch who gives in to their opponents style of play first, but I’d like to think Atlanta actually has the advantage here.
Bench Play: Indiana rebuilt its bench during the off-season in an effort to chase a championship this season and then tinkered with it again in February by adding Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum (true wild cards, though Bynum will not be playing this series), all in hopes that it will pay off in the long run. There truly might not be a more talented team 1-10 in the league, and Evan Turner could really pay dividends this postseason by being able to carry the second unit in scoring. The Hawks, while they have some sparkplugs off the bench, will be greatly disadvantaged when their starters come off the floor. Indiana has furthered their strong advantage in this category over the past week by having backups play more minutes than usual to build confidence, which could really help Indiana in the playoffs.
Home-court Advantage: Would anyone truly be surprised if this ended up being a seven game series in which neither team was able to get a road victory? These are two teams that vastly outperform at home versus on the road, and Indiana certainly has the advantage here with home court advantage not only in this series, but for its entire Eastern Conference slate of opponents. Indiana has a 35-6 record at home (2nd best in the league) compared to a 21-20 record on the road; Atlanta, on the other hand, has a solid 24-17 record at home and a worrisome 14-27 record in road games. David West said Friday that the Pacers need to win Game 1 to reassert their home-court advantage.
Admittedly, it would be hard to imagine the Hawks winning this series. Indiana is too talented 1-10 and the Hawks, while slightly rejuvenated of late, are playing without the services of their best player, and if they fall behind early in the series its difficult to imagine them fighting back. That being said, I certainly expect this to be competitive series. That’s just the makeup of both of these tough, hard-nosed teams. In the end I say the Pacers win in 5 games, but I think at least three of the games will be decided by five points or less.
Click here for the complete Hawks-Pacers first-round playoff schedule.