After a long regular season full of snaps and strains, travails and terrors and 715,973 canned arena demands that “ev-ry-bo-dy clap yo hands,” the NBA’s postseason is set to tip off this weekend. With that in place, the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each first-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
We start with the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks.
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Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
In a way, it’s probably best that the Atlanta Hawks as you’ve long known them (or, at least, long tolerated them) go out like this. In a first-round pairing with Indiana, with most games probably due for NBA TV airings, anonymous as all get out. We’re not going to pretend to know what’s going on in Danny Ferry’s head as he approaches an offseason that will lead to the expiration of coach Larry Drew and forward Josh Smith’s contracts, but based on Ferry’s fine work from last summer, it’s likely that the new’ish Atlanta GM is looking to clean house this July.
And you can’t clean house if emotional attachments are left dangling. Not that the city of Atlanta has ever had an overwhelming attachment to this successful, if underwhelming team.
The way toward this clean sweep is to duck out as silently as possible, and the Pacers (a positive mix of set-crushing defense and old-fashioned Midwestern anonymity) provide the perfect opponent. It’s true that the teams split their season series, and that Indiana is limping into the postseason after losing five of six games (on the heels of an impressive Western Conference jaunt), but rotations and whistles tend to tighten in the postseason. And even some of Atlanta’s more enviable quirks — like, say the forward/center screen-and-roll movement between Smith and adaptable big man Al Horford — could be swallowed up by Roy Hibbert’s long arms and David West’s ability to glare the referees into submission.
Are we crediting the Pacer defense too much? Perhaps, but this is on the heels of a season where the Pacer defense hasn’t been credited nearly enough. The Pacers aren’t lousy with Hall of Fame talent on that side of the ball, but they did turn in a defensive season unseen since the heyday of the San Antonio Spurs’ mid-aught prime. The team’s insistence on forcing teams into midrange attempts at salvation would seem to play right into Larry Drew’s hands, and the Hawks coaching staff does have 96 whole minutes of winning basketball from earlier this season to work through, but that won’t mean much if the shots start rimming out with nary a free throw whistle to be heard.
Those two Hawk wins came with the currently shelved (due to an unfortunate ACL tear) Lou Williams carving up the Pacers’ defense to the tune of 7.5 assists per game. With Williams out, you almost get the feeling that the Hawks will be relying on the majesty of the broken play to get along, with Horford attempting to keep possessions going with an improvised screen, Ivan Johnson continuing the fine play he treated Hawks fans with to end the season, and Kyle Korver spotting up just in case anyone’s eyes followed the ball for too long.
This is why the Hawks can take a game or two from Indiana, because while the Pacers are world-beaters on one end, they remain merely just a very good, second-tier team overall due to their substandard, turnover-prone offense. This is also why these games will be relegated to the B-team on Turner and/or ESPN, with several NBA TV showings. It’s not just Atlanta’s indifference or Indianapolis’ small market — the Pacers force teams into the worst field goal and effective field goal percentage in the NBA, and on the other end, the Pacers also enjoy dribbling the ball off of Lance Stephenson’s foot.
This will bother Ferry, we’re sure, as he made a point to batten the hatches last summer in the wake of the Joe Johnson trade by bringing in Williams and Korver, and declining to deal Smith for middling draft picks at the trade deadline. Ferry wants to win, and he would love it if his team could claw its way toward the second round, with more playoff revenue filling the pockets of a team that is going to take a shot at some big-name free agents this summer.
What’s to be expected, though, is the closing of a chapter in Atlanta Hawks history. One that began with 2004-05’s massive rebuilding project, and came to fruition with six consecutive playoff appearances under both Drew and former coach Mike Woodson. Anonymous entries, all.
A fitting end to the era, we think.
PREDICTION: Pacers in 6.
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements — a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. — that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos" comes from the song "Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
Indiana Pacers: Lance Stephenson doing Lance Stephenson things.
Indiana isn’t a very formidable offensive team — they finished the season 19th in the league in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions), 22nd in effective field goal percentage (which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers) and 20th in True Shooting Percentage (which also factors in the value of free throws). Outside of sound marks on second-chance opportunities, there’s really not a ton they tear you up with — David West in the post’s a pretty good bet, and Roy Hibbert on the low block’s been a better proposition of late. Beyond that, though, Indy’s half-court offense largely revolves around trying to get Paul George loose off curls, brush screens and quick cuts behind ball-watching defenders, which can lead to stagnation if he doesn’t spring free off the initial action.
Yet despite these pitfalls, the absence of former focal point Danny Granger and the paucity of reliable long-range shooting to space the floor, the Pacers’ starting five has produced like an elite offensive unit this year. One pivotal piece in that puzzle? Shooting guard Stephenson, who finds a way every game to get Frank Vogel a few quick points by maximizing transition opportunities and turning stout defense into instant offense.
The Pacers aren’t an up-and-down team — in fact, they ranked 21st in the league in fast-break points per game this season, according to NBA.com’s stat tool, and the transition game accounted for just under 12 percent of their total possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data. They’re more a force-a-miss-and-rebound team than a force-a-turnover team, ranking near the bottom of the league in the percentage of opponents’ possessions ending in turnovers. And yet, a funny thing happens when Stephenson plays — the Pacers average 13.9 fast-break points per 48 minutes, which would ranked them just outside the top-10 in runout opportunism. When he sits, that number dwindles to 8.7-per-48, which would rank dead last behind the half-court-committed New York Knicks.
Whether making a beeline to the basket in search of his own offense or forcing defenders to commit to him so he can dish, Stephenson’s ability to coax extra buckets out of a long rebound here and a quick leakout there gives Indy’s half-court offense a little extra breathing room to work out the kinks; it’s an around-the-margins thing, but it’s an important one. And it should make for a fun occasional-strength vs. consistent-strength matchup against an Atlanta team that allows the fourth-fewest fast-break points per game and finished seventh in transition defense, per Synergy’s numbers. Is Stephenson’s runaway-train style going to be able to beat the Hawks’ floor balance? If so, the already favored Pacers’ chances figure to get a nice little boost.
Atlanta Hawks: Sharpen up those elbows. Wait, no, that’s not right. Get, and stay, sharp from the elbows.
The Pacers have had the NBA’s stingiest defense this year, leading the league in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) pretty much from the opening tip through the last day of the season. But even the most elite defense can’t shut down everything — all coverages leave something open.
In the case of Indy’s man-up, protect-the-rim, prevent-corner-3s and sink-on-pick-and-rolls scheme, what’s most often left open are midrange jump shots around the elbows and free-throw line, as discussed in a February ESPN the Magazine piece ($) that detailed how the Portland Trail Blazers posted a 20-point win over the Pacers. The basic premise: While midrange jumpers rank among the least valuable shots available (they’re harder to make than layups and you don’t get an extra point for them), if the D’s making dunks and corner 3s tough to come by, the midrange game can be effective ... if you’ve got the right shooters shooting.
It’s an approach the Boston Celtics used to earn a big early March win over Indiana, as broken down by HoopChalk’s Jared Dubin; the Celtics could pull it off because they have multiple elite midrange shooters. While the Hawks don’t employ Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Brandon Bass, they have been a good midrange-shooting team of late — 41.8 percent over the last 15 games, tied for fourth-best in the league over that stretch — and they have a few guys who can hurt you from that distance, starting with center Al Horford.
Horford’s one of the sharpest-shooting bigs in the league, hitting 43.7 percent of his midrange tries this season. He’s also a deft passer, averaging more than three assists per 36 minutes and dropping dimes on more than 15 percent of Atlanta’s possessions while he’s on the floor, and he performed well against the Pacers this season, averaging 16 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on 58.8 percent shooting as the teams split their four-game season series ... including a 5-for-11 mark from the area around the elbows (and a 14-for-22 mark from midrange in general).
Given the daunting task of trying to scale Hibbert and the disadvantage Atlanta’s not-iso-proficient perimeter players would face in going one-on-one with long, quick defenders like Stephenson, George and George Hill, Larry Drew will likely double-down on using Horford as a facilitator from the elbows. If his defender sags, he can comfortably take and make that J, especially from the left elbow, where he shot a sterling 47.5 percent this season. (This would also be a fun role for Josh Smith to play, given his passing talents, provided Drew’s hypnotized Smith into only passing or driving from there, and never shooting.)
The Hawks could also get some mileage out of the screening and off-ball actions they like to employ, using pindown screens to free Kyle Korver or rookie John Jenkins loose for makeable shots. That would emphasize some of Atlanta’s stronger suits (the Hawks ranked third in the league in points produced per possession on dribble handoffs, fourth in scoring off screens and seventh off cuts, according to Synergy) and some of Indy’s relative weaknesses (Synergy has the Pacers ranked 13th in points allowed per possession off screens and 14th on handoffs).
If playing through Horford gets Atlanta clean looks early, it could draw Indy’s bigs a step or two further out than usual, opening driving lanes for Jeff Teague and Devin Harris to dash to the rim and compromise the stalwart Pacer D ... which actually hasn’t been quite so stalwart of late. Since April 1, Indy’s allowed opponents to shoot 48 percent from the floor and given up 109.5 points per 100 possessions, tied with the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans for the third-worst mark in the league.
It’s odd to think about casting a quiet, always overlooked near-All-Star and his smooth fundamentals as a potential agent of chaos, but with some luck and if executed properly, Horford-as-midrange-facilitator could provide steady pressure that cracks the Pacers’ D wide open.
(Also, I had to pick something chaotic, Lou Williams is out for the year and I’m scared of Ivan Johnson.)
PREDICTION: Pacers in 6.
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
Paul George: An All-Star selection theoretically protects a player from criticism for several years, particularly if he’s a veteran who can be said to have ascended to a new level of achievement following several solid seasons. But things are a bit different for George, a third-year pro whose selection in February brought him previously unseen fame and attention. Unfortunately for George, he struggled mightily in April, shooting 32 percent from the field in six games at a time when the Pacers had hoped to be hitting their stride.
Good players go through shooting slumps often enough that George’s performance this month doesn’t have to be cause for great concern, and a seven-game series offers plenty of opportunities for a player to exploit a favorable matchup or adjust to what the defense gives him. Yet, because of his All-Star appearance, George figures to receive a large amount of blame for any perceived problems with the Pacers offense. Although he succeeds primarily because of his versatility and stellar defense, George will be looked to as the Pacers’ greatest offensive threat simply because he’s known. If he falters or Indiana struggles in crunch time, George could become less heralded among his young peers. People have lots of expectations for an All-Star, to the point where the label often obscures why the player earned the honor in the first place.
Roy Hibbert: A year ago, Hibbert was a first-time All-Star primed to receive first big free-agent deal. When the Portland Trail Blazers offered him the max, we were suddenly forced to ask questions about him that we hadn’t yet encountered. Is Hibbert a true star, or just someone lucky enough to have benefited from the All-Star Game’s two-center requirement? And if the Pacers were to sign him to that contract, would it be worth it irrespective of market rates considering the limits it’d place on their cap flexibility?
Hibbert struggled enough in the early months of this season to make his contract look like a mistake, but he unsurprisingly bounced back and now stands as one of the best candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year award. Yet there’s a difference between someone playing well enough to make his contract broadly justifiable and someone turning even a max deal into the cost of doing business. Hibbert is clearly in the former camp, which means he’s really just one disappointing playoff series away from having his contract questioned once again. Hawks center Al Horford is a severe test, even as he plays through shoulder pain, and Hibbert’s ability to contain and score on him could go a long way toward determining how people see him for at least another season.
Josh Smith: Although Dwight Howard and Chris Paul are set to hit the market, Smith is the best pending free agent anyone would actually bet on to change teams. Unfortunately, Smoove is also a perpetually maddening player with enough talent to convince a team he’s worth big money but enough bad habits to make that team feel icky about offering the deal. It’s possible that Smoove will get a max-level offer simply because he’ll be the best player available — it’s equally likely that a desperate team will hand it to him.
Smith is enough of a known quantity that his postseason performance won’t do much to determine the reaction to his eventual deal, because it will only be met with pure positivity if he unleashes some kind of irrational dominance we have no reason to suspect. Nevertheless, a few games of ideal Smith performances — let’s say 20 points, eight rebounds, four assists, three blocks, three steals — could do a lot to bring a new suitor into the mix, or maybe just help fans prepare themselves for the inevitable. At this point in Smoove’s career, that would represent progress.
Jeff Teague: NBA diehards know Jeff Teague as an above-average, often-exciting point guard who could get a few votes for Most Improved Player. Yet, to the vast majority of the public, Teague is an unknown name, a young player on a fairly unmarketable team that only gets national attention during TNT’s weaker doubleheaders. In theory, this series is his chance to announce himself to a wider audience, to show the world that he’s a growing talent with the chance to be mentioned alongside some of the league’s other top young point guards.
The bad news for Teague is that he’s playing in the series most likely to get its games consigned to NBA TV, a channel not included in most cable packages and therefore purchased by diehards already very familiar with Teague and his abilities. In a way, his performance will only do so much to get people to notice him. More than anything, he’s playing to get to the next round, where the Hawks will be inescapable.
PREDICTION: Pacers in 5.
More first-round previews from Ball Don’t Lie: