Three, even two, months ago the No.1 seed Indiana Pacers would be expected to sweep the No. 8 Atlanta Hawks. But after an awful second half to the regular season the Pacers enter Saturday’s Game One of their first-round series with their heads hanging low.
Since March 1, the Pacers have gone 12-13 in their final 25 games yet still managed to keep the Eastern Conference’s top seed from defending champion Miami. It helps that only one of those 13 losses was to a team out of the playoffs (a 92-86 letdown to the Knicks on Mar. 19), and the Pacers ended the regular season winning three of their last four including a five-point victory over Oklahoma City.
Even before center Al Horford went down for the season with a shoulder injury, the Hawks were not expected to be a playoff team and barely edged the Knicks out for the East’s final berth. Atlanta also rode a six-game losing streak in late March, but ended the regular season on a high note by winning four of its last five, including a huge confidence boost with victories over Brooklyn on the road and Miami.
The Hawks best asset against Indiana will be its team-oriented style of play. Six players averaged double-figures for Atlanta this season, powered by the always-underrated forward Paul Millisap’s 17.9 points and 8.5 rebounds and point guard Jeff Teague’s 16.5 points and 6.7 assists per game.
It’s a rare occurrence, but a No. 1 seed has fallen to No. 8 in a seven-game, first-round series before. Golden State took down heavily favored Dallas in six games in 2007, joining Denver and the Knicks as the only No. 8s to drop a No. 1. Though the last two were when the NBA used a five-game format for first-round series.
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George Hill vs. Jeff Teague
Teague is hitting his stride at the best time possible, averaging 18.8 points and shooting 52.7 percent from the floor with 5.8 assists in April. Meanwhile Hill is in a bit of slump especially from deep, barely grazing the rim at 26.7 percent from three. If his shot isn’t falling, Hill will instead focus on limiting Teague’s production.
Lance Stephenson vs. Kyle Korver
Stephenson emerged as one of Indiana’s best players in last year’s playoff run, and he currently leads the team in rebounds (7.2) and assists (4.6). If Stephenson can contain his emotions and keep a hand in Korver’s face along the perimeter, the Pacers need not worry. Shooting 47 percent from three in the regular season, Korver is highly capable of going off, but in 60 career playoff games he’s dipped to 38 percent.
DeMarre Carroll vs. Paul George
Carroll won’t have to tangle with the versatile and gangly George by himself, but any energy he forces George to expend on the defensive end is a plus for Atlanta. George has struggled with more than three turnovers a game in the last four months of the season, and he shot only 37 percent from the field in March. George still leads the Pacers with 1.9 steals per contest, and also re-discovered is shot to average 22.6 points in five games in April.
David West vs. Paul Millsap
Atlanta’s offense flows through Teague and Millsap, and if that connection is severed the Hawks have very little chance. Millsap is more than capable of taking over a game offensively, but even if he gets West in foul trouble he has Indiana’s loaded bench to overcome.
Roy Hibbert vs. Pero Antic
A seven-footer with a wide body, Hibbert has very few excuses for not leading the Pacers in rebounding. His offense also dropped off a cliff in April at 23 percent shooting and 3.2 rebounds per game. However, Indiana won’t ask him to carry the offense too much in this series. The Macedonian is the Hawks biggest body to toss at Hibbert and does has the potential to keep him of the glass.
Luis Scola/Evan Turner vs. Mike Scott/ Elton Brand/ Louis Williams
Scola was the only Pacer to play all 82 regular season games and he’s their ace-in-the-hole if West gets in foul trouble. Turner may or may not have disrupted Indiana’s offensive flow, but he is a talented midrange shooter that can stretch the floor for Hill or George to penetrate.
Scott and Brand will be asked to help out on the boards, and slide over on pick-and-rolls to limit Stephenson and George. Williams has averaged 11.1 points in 30 playoff games and Atlanta will need the shooting guard's scoring if Teague toils.
Betting Odds: Indiana is favored by 7 points in Game One
Prediction: The Pacers clearly have more talent, but might struggle in the first two games of the series. Still they’ll contain Millsap and Teague and move on in five games, 4-1.