Sadly – because these are genuinely two very talented teams – the Atlanta Hawks/Indiana Pacers first round pairing has lived up to its reputation as the NBA’s “NBA TV Series” thus far. The two teams have given us four games of mostly one-sided basketball, with only a pair of semi-comebacks from the Hawks and Pacers livening up Games 2 and 4 (respectively) to entertain. Sometimes two pretty or very good teams pair up to provide some pretty bad basketball, and though we respect both sides, the product just hasn’t been a fun watch.
So un-fun, in fact, that San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (in a rare instance of NBA players calling out their own, even jokingly) dismissed the series as unwatchable. Something to ignore, with the celebrated Boston Celtics attempting to stay alive on Wednesday night and the Oklahoma City Thunder challenging themselves in a post-Russell Westbrook world.
Has it been unwatchable? Not technically. It hasn’t been fun to watch at times, but it’s still actually “watchable” in the same way that something that is not “eatable” may still be “edible.” This is still a best-of three series between two pretty good pro teams, though, and because of various adjustments and the chance for retribution from several of this series’ key elements, this might be something to click over to on Wednesday, and beyond.
The most appropriate way to describe this uninspiring series is to point out that “the Indiana/Atlanta first round series was completely turned upside-down when Johan Petro entered Atlanta’s starting lineup at center.” Yes, the random, journeyman Petro allowed for a series of personnel shifts that both engaged Hawks star Josh Smith, and inspired Al Horford (now free from Roy Hibbert’s clutches) to score and rebound in bunches.
Petro has scored just as many points (10) as a starter as he did coming off the pine in the first two games of this series, but Horford has responded by taking advantage of what has been a pretty poor first round series from Pacer forward David West, and Smith has come through with fantastic production on both ends of the ball.
Even if he is, y’know, still taking those shots. On Tuesday, NBA.com’s Sekou Smith talked about the Atlanta crowd’s reaction to when Smith lines up for his long, flat-footed perimeter jumpers:
Smith doesn’t flinch, no matter how loud the crowd gets. And they rode the emotional roller coaster with him on this night, play after crazy play from start to finish as Smith scored a career playoff-high 29 points with 11 rebounds, four assists and three steals. It was his first 25-point, 10-rebound playoff game and came in his 50th postseason appearance, a nice robust number for a player who continues to confound not only the fans but some of his teammates as well.
“This was definitely one of those ‘ooh, aah’ moments with Josh,” Al Horford said. “He gives you those ‘oohs’ and then those ‘aahs.’ It’s kind of a ‘Yes’ and then ‘No’ thing going on. That’s the way it is. I think [the fans] obviously want Josh to be successful. Everybody loves him here. Sometimes we do question his shot selection. But tonight he hit some big shots down the stretch, made some huge plays for other guys down the stretch and made plays to help us win this game. I know it might drive some people a little crazy. But it works for us and that’s just the way it is.”
Smith’s jumper actually started falling during Atlanta’s Game 2 loss to the Pacers, and while there’s always the chance he’ll regress to the mean as the series moves on, for a good stretch at least it has been fun to see Josh make his usual series of “no, no, no, NO … OK, fine; it went in”-bombs from long range.
Josh will tell you he’s firing away because he’s a small forward now, and because of the job he’s done on Pacer All-Star Paul George, it’s probably true that Smith has earned some discretionary spending from 20-feet away. Chris Vivlamore, at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, discusses the impact of the Big Switch, leading with a quote from Josh:
“(George is) a really good player. He’s an All-Star. He’s an up-and-coming young talent in the league. To be able to take on that challenge is always challenging, and I like to be able to guard someone who has a complex game like him. I get up for it.”
There is more statistical evidence of the stark contrast of the Hawks’ play since the lineup change. In Games 1 and 2, the lopsided Pacers victories at home, Smith had a combined plus/minus rating of minus-29. In Games 3 and 4, the one-sided Hawks wins, Smith had a combined plus-34.
“Josh has not done a good job; he’s done a superb job in defending Paul George,” Drew said. “Paul is still going to score because he’s that good, but the thing is you have to make him work. I think Josh is doing a good job with that.”
George said the energy level with which Smith played the past two games has been noticeable. Teammate Al Horford said the Hawks are a different team when Smith plays with the energy level he showed in the past two games.
George is an All-Star, but the swooning “he’s only 22!” reminders that came from the first two games of this series are now being switched around to a more mindful “he’s only 22!” response after his work in Atlanta. George still has plenty to do in terms of ball handling, spot up shooting, and work off the ball as he works his way into acting as the leader of this team. He’s only 22, and it’s going to take a while.
In the meantime, with David West obviously in a bad place and not contributing at his usual rate, former All-Star center Roy Hibbert is going to have to stand up for the Pacers. The big man (who has always been an underutilized passer) doesn’t need to start drop-stepping his way toward 25 points or foul Petro out by halftime, but a Pacers offense that has struggled to find fluid ball movement even at its best times in Atlanta needs to start functioning from the inside-out.
In a fantastic and exhaustive bit of work for SB Nation, Drew Garrison went deep into Hibbert’s postseason production, pointing out that the pivot was a positive producer when passed-to and presupposed to perform in the paint. Here’s a portion of Garrison’s piece:
This is another example of how the Pacers should be using Hibbert. Indiana needs high-percentage field goals more than anything. Without extra defenders around Hibbert, the paint is open to be attacked. Hibbert can be a double-threat for the Pacers as a post scorer and facilitator, which can be used to keep the Hawks' defense honest. Either Hibbert can get a high-quality shot off, or the Pacers can use off-ball movement and penetrate to the rim.
The entire breakdown is a must-read. Four games is a small sample size, but Hibbert needs to be involved in a Pacer offense that fell off a cliff following Game 2.
To many, this entire series fell off a cliff once the eventual Eastern playoff seedings became apparent. That’s understandable, and because these two teams have alternated big wins, neither side has done much to make this a compelling series. That could change on Wednesday, though.
(We’re not sure.)