The Indiana Pacers (49-32), the Eastern Conference's 3rd seed, will take on the Atlanta Hawks (44-38), the 6th seed, in the first game of the first round of the NBA Playoffs on Sunday afternoon.
The two teams split the 4 regular season meetings this season, with Atlanta winning the first two in November and December and the Pacers winning the last two in February and March. On paper, the Pacers appear to have the stronger lineup. The Hawks rely on their big men Al Horford and Josh Smith, but the Pacers should have enough size to contend with them with Roy Hibbert and David West clogging up the middle. Ian Mahinmi, Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Pendergraph provide backup size in the event of foul trouble to the Pacers' starting bigs.
In the backcourt, Jeff Teague is growing into his own, which could present problems for the Pacers especially if George Hill does not return to 100%. The Pacers' starting PG is said to be battling groin and hip problems, which will limit his speed and mobility against the quick Teague.
The Pacers bench remains a big question mark because of its inconsistency, while the Hawks have some names on their roster that could do damage if called upon. It makes me wonder to what extent Pacers coach Frank Vogel will shorten the rotation and give more minutes to his starting unit, which is according to statistics one of the best in the NBA.
Most analysts have the Pacers winning in 5 ot 6 games, with only a handful thinking sweep or a full 7 games. However, only one ESPN analyst, Henry Abbott, picked the Hawks to win in an upset over 7 games.
Personally, I think this will be a hard fought series and the Pacers are by no means a lock to advance to the second round. The Pacers are still regarded as the best defensive team in the league, but they have been horrible lately in shutting down opponents. They head into the playoffs having lost 5 of their last 6 games, with the lone win being a crazy come-from-behind victory against the Cavs in which they were down by more than 20 points.
Vogel admitted to there being problems with the D that needed to be fixed and said that guys were either fatigued or banged up. Well, they had an extra day of rest due to the Boston game being canceled and all starters aside from Lance Stephenson played in the finale, which means a lot of guys have not played a game since the April 14 loss to the Knicks. Perhaps this time off has given them time to rejuvenate and tweak a few things here and there for the playoffs.
Roy Hibbert appears to have found his offensive touch, which is great news, but Paul George appears to be heading in the opposite direction with a string of awful performances. The Pacers will need both of them to be in top form for this series.
It's a curious series because the Pacers have been playing so poorly as of late, even though the Hawks don't exactly appear to be on fire either. That said, it appeared as though the Hawks tanked their last two games of the season so they would face the Pacers instead of the Brooklyn Nets, and keep themselves out of the Miami Heat side of the bracket.
The first two games of the series will be key. Will we see the Pacers team that suffocated opposing offenses for the majority of the season or the terrible swiss-cheese defense we witnessed towards the end of the season? And on the flip side, will the Pacers offense be as good as it had been towards the end of the season or as atrocious as it was when the team was playing its best D?
We will have to wait and see.
For my 2 cents, I am predicting that the Pacers will tough it out in 6.