David West, Roy Hibbert, Paul George and the rest of the Indiana Pacers have their hands full against an Atlanta Hawks team bannered by Al Horford, Josh Smith, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. (AP)
With the curtains about ready to be raised for the NBA’s second season, and the chase for the coveted Larry O’Brien Championship trophy skimmed down to the league’s top eight teams in each of its two conferences, I will be covering the Pacers-Hawks first round series on the ground here in Indianapolis as NBA.com Philippines’ credentialed media correspondent.
Follow me as I break down the match-ups and go behind the scenes for my exclusive NBA.com Philippines playoff coverage.
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In the absence of team captain and former All-Star Danny Granger, who led the team in scoring in each of the five previous seasons, the Eastern Conference’s third-seeded Indiana Pacers (49-32) have emerged as the NBA’s best defensive team going into the 2013 NBA Playoffs, limiting opponents to an average of 90.7 points per game, while shooting 42 percent from the field.
When the Pacers host the sixth-seeded Atlanta Hawks (44-38) this Sunday to open their first round Playoff matchup in Indianapolis, expect a highly physical, grind-it-out game that may not be the most fan-friendly style of ballgame to watch for the casual fan, but something old school basketball junkies can definitely appreciate.
The Pacers will try to dictate the tempo of the game in the paint and with their rebounding behind their rugged and formidable frontline led by veteran forward David West, center Roy Hibbert, reserves Tyler Hansbrough and Ian Mahinmi, while the long and active arms of All-Star guard Paul George, George Hill, together with the hard-nosed, albeit mercurial Lance Stephenson figure to challenge every jump shot and plug passing lanes and make the Hawks work for every possession.
Though these two teams split their regular season series 2-2 with the home team winning each time, the Hawks will need extra production from their guards Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Devin Harris to make up for the loss of Lou Williams, who played an integral role in the two home wins against the Pacers and is unavailable throughout the series due to an ACL injury. Rookie John Jenkins, DeShawn Stevenson and former Pacer Dahntay Jones also need to provide some quality minutes off the Hawks bench that will need all the offensive contributions they can get, especially from the perimeter, to keep the Pacers’ suffocating defense off-balanced.
Josh Smith and Al Horford will have their work cut out for them and will have their hands full fending off the Pacers bigs, all the more with center Zaza Pachulia out due to an Achilles injury. Smith and Horford have the edge in athleticism over the Pacers’ frontline, and will look to exploit their 4-to-5 pick-and-rolls, as well as draw out their defenders to the perimeter with both possessing a reliable jumper. Look for Smith, who will be up for grabs after the season as an unrestricted free agent, to showcase his full value as he seeks a long-term, max contract and should pose problems for the Pacers as he has done so in recent years.
The Hawks won’t have the luxury, however, of missing too many shots against the Pacers who led the league in rebounding (45.9 per game) and have a knack of forcing opponents to shooting bad shots and clearing the boards thereafter.
The Pacers do a good job in contesting threes (No. 1 in opponents’ 3-point percentage) as well as shots in the paint, so the key for the Hawks will be scoring off the fast break and knocking down their medium range jumpers.
Despite closing the season losing five of their last six games, and Paul George – who was named an All-Star this season after his outstanding performances in January and February – slowing down and struggling in April thanks in large to his growing reputation and defenses tuning in more on him, the Pacers are playing with a lot of confidence a year removed from their Eastern Conference semifinals exit after leading the series 2-1 against the eventual champions, the Miami Heat.
Prior to their struggles to close out the season, the Pacers swept their four-game west coast trip with impressive wins over the Clippers, Rockets, Suns and Mavericks, who at the time were on a hot winning streak while chasing down the eighth seed in the West. In those four games, Hibbert assumed the leadership role and averaged 22.5 points per game, while shooting 58.6 percent from the floor and grabbing more than 10 rebounds per game, justifying the $58 million, max contract he signed with the Pacers during the offseason, if not last season’s All-Star selection.
After clinching their first Central Division title in nine years, and with fatigue and injuries starting to sink in at the end of the season, it’s understandable, though not an excuse, for the Pacers to relax their foot off the gas pedal and look forward to the Playoffs. The Pacers starters (except Stephenson) got a chance to rest for a full week when Tuesday’s game against the Celtics got cancelled after the tragic Boston Marathon bombings, and coach Frank Vogel electing to sit them out for their season finale against the Sixers last Wednesday.
The Hawks managed to rest their starters as well for their final game against the Knicks, who ironically saw two of their rotation players in Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland get hurt last Wednesday.
David West vs. Josh Smith; Roy Hibbert vs. Al Horford; Paul George vs. Kyle Krover, Devin Harris, Dahntay Jones, DeShawn Stevenson.
I just can’t see how the Hawks can win more than two games (at the most) against the Pacers’ stifling defense and tenacious rebounding. Though the Pacers aren’t the most proficient of teams on offense, the Hawks are mediocre at best and will have a hard time keeping up on the glass after being outrebounded by opponents by more than 3 per game during the season.
It would have to take a really flat start and a horrible game for the Pacers, and an outstanding shooting night for the Hawks to win one on the road against the blue and gold, who are 30-11 at home. This will be a short series.
Pacers move on in 5.
Follow Dennis on Twitter @dRealSource.