Let’s get the ugly stuff out of the way first. The disaster that was the Pacers’ month of March can actually be extrapolated to a larger sample size. In the 30 games Indiana played after the All Star Break, coach Frank Vogel’s outfit scored five points per game less than it did in the first half, gave up more than five more points a game on defense – including yielding 100 or more points in 10 games, just one less time they did pre-break in 22 fewer games – and generally had a dark cloud hover above them like they were the NBA’s version of a depressing comic-strip character.
But you know what? None of that matters now. The clichest of clichés in the NBA is to state that the playoffs are a new season – but that’s just what the postseason represents. Do people remember that Indiana went 2-5 last April and was tied two games apiece against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs? No, people remember the Pacers using every ounce of blue collar and gold swagger they had to push the Big 3-led Miami Heat to a Game 7 in the East Finals.
Now, there are real concerns. So let’s dive in and see if Indiana is in trouble against a team that probably would rather be in the draft lottery…
THE PACERS WIN THE SERIES IF…
Basic offensive adjustments are made
I don’t necessarily expect Indiana to regain its world-beater level from earlier this season, but baby steps – the same ones the unit took in the win over Oklahoma City Sunday – would go a long way toward a return to normalcy. Forget stats for a second; the Pacers need to do a few simple things offensively:
1. Space the floor. Watch this team enough and it’s easy to notice that Indiana seems to get in its own way on a good number of its offensive sets. A small tweak to that would be to adhere to better floor positioning. Too many times guys are standing too close either to another player or the basket, clogging up passing and driving lanes. A recent Grantland article noted that Paul George and Lance Stephenson are guilty of randomly standing just inside the 3-point line on a regular basis. That’s simply lazy court awareness.
2. Actually set screens. While it’s likely this is a team-wide problem, the blame here falls mostly on David West and Roy Hibbert. Whether it is at the top of the key or on the side of the court, West and Hibbert seem to be setting the majority of ball screens – and I use the word ‘setting’ lightly. Perhaps ‘feign’ is the proper verb. It’s crazy that two men who measure 6-9, 240 pounds and 7-2, 290-pounds, respectively, so often hit nothing but air on their screens, but that’s what happens.
3. Enough with the whining. Hibbert is prone to sulking when he doesn’t get enough post touches. Stephenson is a human eye-roll machine when he doesn’t receive the rock in certain situations. George seems to think he deserves superstar calls before making an All-NBA team. A popular target of blame for Indiana’s late-season swoon has been a proliferation of overconfidence. I tend to agree with that to a certain extent. Out with diva personalities; in with the lunch-pail persona.
THE HAWKS WIN THE SERIES IF…
Paul Millsap plays like an agile Kevin Love
Millsap’s numbers against the Pacers this year are not good. In fact, the 6-8 forward’s averages of 8.8 points on 31.1 percent shooting are his worst numbers against any team the Hawks have played at least twice this season. (The teams split their four regular-season matchups). But Millsap, a first-time All-Star this season, presents a matchup problem for the Pacers in the same way ex-Hawk Josh Smith used to give Indiana fits. Millsap shoots 36 percent from 3 and averages just under a trio of triple attempts per game – good enough numbers to pencil him as a threat from deep. Add in the fact that Millsap pulls in 8.5 boards and dishes out 3.1 assists, and you have an all-around offensive threat capable of giving West, Luis Scola and the other not-as-athletic Pacer forward problems with his versatility.
PACERS KEY PLAYER:
Whoever is guarding Kyle Korver
Korver is the league’s top 3-point shooter (.472) and is presently 22nd all-time in triples made – so don’t leave him open. It should be a six-figure fine to any Pacers’ rotation player that leaves Korver – who nailed 10-of-20 triples vs. Indiana this year – standing alone around any portion of the 3-point arc. Bet on George and Stephenson playing the screen-dodging Jerrys to Korver’s Tom.
HAWKS KEY PLAYER:
I’ve already explained the importance of Millsap, so let’s go with Teague. This year, the fifth-year point guard and Pike High School product has recorded career highs in scoring (16.5), usage percentage (25.7) and free-throw attempts (4.8), the last of which is two attempts more than his career average. In Atlanta’s 107-88 win over the Pacers on April 6, Teague lit up Indiana for 25 points. Frankly, the Teague-George Hill matchup swings in the Hawks favor, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see George and Stephenson guard Teague at various points during the series – including crunch time – to prevent Teague from carving up the Pacers’ interior defense on dribble drives and pick and rolls.
Pacers in 5
If two-time All-Star big man Al Horford – lost for the season in late December with a pectoral injury – was healthy, I’d give serious consideration to Atlanta upsetting the Pacers, regardless of the seed matchup. The Hawks outside-in style will give the Pacers occasional problems, and if Korver catches fire, there will certainly be some tense moments. But, Indiana has superior talent, and there should be a pleasant surprise or two from the Pacers’ bench every once in awhile. That should be more than enough to dispatch an Atlanta unit that won 38 games and somehow still made the playoffs.
Grant Freking is a sportswriter for The Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.