The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
One year ago, the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks met in a first-round series that was ridiculed for its boring play, Indiana’s inability to close out what felt like a lesser Hawks squad, and its relegation to the NBA TV end of things rather than a more nationally sponsored showcase.
This … this doesn’t figure to change in 2014.
Indiana, at its best, is a fearsome outfit. The group admirably paid tribute to its own fans and own potential while coming out of the gates swinging last autumn, restating a point with both words and play the team treated home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference bracket as a priority, an understandable goal considering the outfit’s Game 7 loss in Miami to the Heat in 2013. The Pacers held the NBA’s best record for a goodly chunk of the season’s first half, it more than held its own in both Indianapolis and Miami meetings with the defending champs, and it finished the season with both the top seed in the East and a 35-6 record at home.
It also finished the season on a 23-19 run, hardly a mark befitting a championship contender working with a healthy starting lineup and designs on knocking off the two-time champion Heat. Its offense sunk terribly, its particulars whined and moaned about each other on record to the media, and its top players fell off in ways that made the midseason summations of their respective seasons seem almost laughable in retrospect.
Paul George won’t be battling Kevin Durant and LeBron James for All-NBA honors, much less MVP honors. Lance Stephenson doesn’t feel like much of a fringe All-Star anymore. Roy Hibbert may even lose out to Joakim Noah for Defensive Player of the Year honors, something that seemed unthinkable even a few weeks ago.
And the Atlanta Hawks? They’re not exactly a needed salve, sent from on high to straighten Indiana’s ship.
The Hawks split the season series with Indiana, with one midseason contest working as just the Pacers’ seventh loss in 35 tries, and it’s very much possible Atlanta’s 107-88 triumph over Indiana from earlier in April acted as the Pacers’ low point. Indiana scored just 23 points in the first half of that contest, and partially as a result Indiana coach Frank Vogel decided to wipe his entire starting five off the books for the team’s next contest in Milwaukee, a borderline unprecedented move for a team whose status as the top overall seed was still in question.
The Pacers responded with a win over those Bucks, in a way, because they were eventually blown out by the Heat in Miami just two days later. The Hawks are the Hawks, though, one of the worst playoff teams in recent NBA lore, a squad that will have to see everything go right in order to merely take a win or two away from a Pacers team that was just a game away from the NBA Finals last season.
Atlanta enjoyed a marvelous All-Star season from free-agent signee Paul Millsap, but it will also be working without its best player in the injured Al Horford, led by a point guard in Jeff Teague who has been equal parts fantastic and far below average this year. The group turns the ball over more than any other team in the playoffs (though the Pacers are just one spot ahead of Atlanta). Outside of Kyle Korver the team has no reason to rank second in 3-pointers attempted this year, and many wondered if the Hawks should have just punted their chance at the eighth seed for basketball reasons, in order to glom onto a lower-end lottery pick.
This is Indiana’s opponent. And though the Pacers will eventually win, all signs point to a struggle. Even if the Pacers sweep the series, things will be close from game to game.
And things will be, unfortunately, quite ugly. So is their combined custom.
Prediction: Pacers in 6.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
Can the Hawks shoot the Pacers out of their defensive comfort zone?
By now, we know what Frank Vogel wants his team to accomplish on defense. He wants to use the long arms, quick feet, agility and instincts of Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill to track opposing scorers man-to-man, to clog passing lanes, and to short-circuit the ball movement that compromises defenses. He wants to protect the paint and the 3-point line above all else, refusing to help off the corners on dribble penetration and inviting ball-handlers to either pull up for low-percentage midrange jumpers or try to score over 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert.
That defense works best when Hibbert, the league's preeminent obstacle, doesn't have to move very far from his dominion. It can be compromised when the opposition forces the plodding pivot to check someone who can shoot from outside accurately enough to make him pay for not staying close by.
We've seen multiple teams deploy this sort of offensive attack against Hibbert — the New York Knicks with now- teammate Chris Copeland, the Phoenix Suns with Markieff Morris, the Miami Heat with Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem, etc. — and while there's no foolproof way to consistently beat an Indiana defense that's topped the NBA in points allowed per possession two years running, this is one of the few ploys that seems to work with some level of regularity.
Which is why, odd as it sounds, the key to the Hawks toppling the mighty Pacers very well might be a 31-year-old Macedonian rookie named Pero Antic. (He's the 6-foot-11 dude who looks like a pale, tattooed Carlos Boozer.)
Under first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks have become a spread-the-floor-and-bomb-from-deep squad. Led by sharpshooter Kyle Korver, Atlanta's rotation is full of guys willing to fire from deep and able to connect at respectable clips, including front-liners All-Star Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll and Mike Scott. And then there's Antic, who came over from Olympiacos this summer and was pressed into duty when Al Horford went down for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
Antic's game has its detractors, but he fits Budenholzer's spread-and-fire ethos perfectly, and he had two of his best games of the season against these Indiana Pacers — two games, perhaps not coincidentally, that the Hawks won handily. He scored 34 points in two meetings with Indy this season, shooting a scorching 13 for 18 from the field and 6 for 10 from 3-point land, as the Hawks repeatedly used him as a release valve to make Hibbert and the rest of Indiana's bigs pay for staying too close to home.
They found Antic early out of Horns sets with plenty of off-ball screening that confused the defense until, all of a sudden, Antic was casting off:
They had him set screens up top, roll to the rim and flow to the short corner, betting that Hibbert wouldn't follow:
They had him switch it up by popping to the wing after setting his screen:
They had him set off-ball screens for what looked like more threatening action, then pop free:
None of this stuff is especially complicated or intricately designed; it just flows out of what Atlanta runs for primary scoring options like Millsap, Korver and Jeff Teague. That's what makes it so effective, though — you don't tilt your defense to stop Pero Antic like he's Dirk Nowitzki, until he hurts you enough that you must treat him like a credible threat.
Once you do, seams start appearing elsewhere, and you can exploit such openings. As detailed by SB Nation's Mike Prada, one of Atlanta's favorite half-court actions aims to either get Korver an open shot from the midrange area Indiana tends to leave open with its soft pick-and-roll coverage. If the opponent defending the screener sticks with Korver as he comes off his curl, Korver can pass back and give the screener either a run at the rim or an open midrange shot from the opposite elbow while his defender's otherwise occupied.
If Antic and Atlanta's other bigs can force Hibbert and company to take an extra step or two outside their comfort zone, that could open up driving lanes for Teague, Lou Williams and Shelvin Mack, or afford Millsap — who struggled mightily when defended by Hibbert or David West during the regular season — more room to operate inside. The more chaos the Hawks can create inside, the more space their shooters will have to let it fly, and we know they're going to do that; Atlanta attempted 101 3-pointers in four games against Indy this season, connecting at a sterling 40.6 percent clip.
If Atlanta comes out of the gate firing and hitting in Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers might start flashing back to the 107-88 roasting they suffered a couple of weeks back, and the Hawks might have a real shot to steal home-court advantage. But despite the Pacers' well-publicized and much-discussed struggles over the past two months, I can't shake the feeling that they're going to enter Saturday prepared to sell out to shut down the arc like they do to everybody else, recommit to funneling everything into Hibbert and rededicate themselves to punishing the opposition with West on the block. If I'm wrong, well, here's hoping it'll be in the service of seeing the sort of entertainment only giant Macedonian gunners can provide.
Prediction: Pacers in 5.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
Instead of writing some wonderful introduction to the issues at play in this series, I suggest you consider the wisdom of Twitter celebrity Dragonfly Jonez:
Not watching a single second of the Hawks-Pacers series is becoming a proud April tradition.— D'Brickashaw (@DragonflyJonez) April 17, 2014
Now, as someone whose livelihood depends on public interest in the NBA, I cannot fully endorse Mr. Jonez’s comment. However, he makes a compelling case. The Pacers are stumbling into the postseason, having gone 10-13 since March 2, and look in need of a reloading period to get ready for the East’s tougher challengers. The Hawks, meanwhile, are the only playoff participant to have finished under .500, have been without marquee star Al Horford for the bulk of the season, and generally seem to have considered their postseason berth a nice by-product of the season rather than the point of playing 82 games.
In other words, this series is a one-sided affair in which the heavy favorite hasn’t even been playing well enough to recommend viewing on the basis of seeing how terribly one team can lose. It’s easy to imagine this tilt as a four- or five-game ordeal in which the Pacers control the proceedings without ever really looking like a dominant force. Spend your time elsewhere.
Rating: 1 out of 10 Hawks Mascots on Motorcycles
Prediction: Pacers in 5.