The Atlanta Hawks shouldn’t have made the playoffs once Al Horford went down with a season ending injury but played a lot better than people expected out of them. The Indiana Pacers went through an opposite kind of path: From definite title contenders and Paul George looking like an MVP early in the season, to a team no one is quite sure of at this stage, with Roy Hibbert looking more like a scrub than a DPOY he claims to be.
The Hawks finished with a sub .500 record, but in the East that is usually enough for a postseason spot. Paul Millsap did a great job putting in the extra effort for the missing Horford, finishing the season averaging 17.9 points and 8.5 rebounds. Jeff Teague is one of the best second-tier point guards in the league for simply not trying to do more than he has to – smart, efficient basketball, coming with 16.5 points and 6.7 assists.
And then there are the wildcards. DeMarre Carroll is one of the team’s most important players for his defense, coming in a lot more handy than the 11.1 points per game they get from him. Elton Brand was a surprising benefactor off the bench, while Pero Antic gives them another 3-point threat that will force Roy Hibbert to play a bit further than he would like to, while Kyle Korver continues to be the team’s biggest game changer with his outside shooting, averaging 12 points per game.
The Pacers and the Hawks split the season series 2-2, including losing by 19 points at home to Atlanta before picking themselves up for a dignified finish and securing the top spot in the East. Paul George is inefficient, but he makes this offense work. David West might be the team’s most important player: Reliable, and pretty much irreplaceable in his ability to guard multiple positions on defense and stretch one on the other end.
George Hill needs to wake up. Lance Stephenson needs to grow up. But the Pacers’ defense is built on Roy Hibbert, not long arms of the wing players. Hibbert used to be a huge different, but suddenly players are attacking him in the paint, he finishes games with abysmal rebounding numbers and looks like someone who just doesn’t want to be around anyone. The Pacers need that rest they gave him and others to mean something by the time the first tip off ball is thrown, or they’re going to be in a lot of trouble, because offense alone won’t win them this series, not that they have that much to offer (22nd in the NBA in offensive efficiency).
Prediction – The Hawks will give the Pacers a lot of trouble, but not enough. The real Pacers might be something between the team we saw early in the season and the one we saw late in the year, yet it still should be enough to win this series in six games.