The Indiana Pacers were supposed to be a legitimate threat to the Miami Heat, possibly keeping them from reaching a fourth consecutive NBA Finals. As the East’s No.1 seed enters Game Six of their first-round series, they are on the brink of elimination.
The Pacers trail the Atlanta Hawks 3-2 in their first-round matchup. In order for Indiana to survive, they must win on the road and force a Game Seven.
Through five games, the Pacers are even lucky to still be alive in the 2014 NBA playoffs. The Hawks have been fairly dominant, winning their games by an average of over 10 points. Even in their losses, Atlanta nearly pulled out a victory. They’ve held a double-digit lead at some point in every contest.
What has happened to the team that lead the conference with 56 regular-season wins? What can the Pacers do to stay in the postseason?
"Everyone wants to talk about what's wrong with us," Indiana head coach Frank Vogel said. "I think a lot of this goes to the way they're shooting it and the way they're playing.”
Atlanta is playing better than they did in the regular season. They barely squeaked into the playoffs with 38 victories, and have gotten big performances from Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague.
Still, the Pacers’ decline is hard to fathom. Even after struggling in the final month and a half, they finished 18 games ahead of the Hawks. Despite Vogel’s claims, Atlanta hasn’t been shooting at an impressive rate. Their 41 percent field goal shooting ranks second-to-last among all 16 playoff teams.
After losing Josh Smith in the offseason and Al Horford to a season-ending injury, Atlanta has less star power than most teams in the postseason. Players like Mike Scott and DeMarre Carroll have been major contributors to the Hawks’ success in the series. In Atlanta’s dominant Game Five victory, the Pacers allowed Shelvin Mack to score 20 points, a mark he surpassed just once this season.
“We’ve got blue-collar guys like Paul Millsap, like Elton Brand, who don’t get a lot of recognition that they deserve,” Carroll said, via the Washington Post. “So playing with a chip on our shoulder? You could say we do.”
Not only will Indiana have to prevent Atlanta’s role players from putting up big numbers, but their stars have to return to their early-season form, in order to force a Game Seven. Paul George is putting up comparable numbers to his 2013-2014 season stats, but Roy Hibbert has seen a startling decline in his production. The center is averaging just 4.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game against Atlanta. In Game Five, he didn’t even score or grab a rebound in 12 minutes.
Hibbert was once the leading candidate to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. However, his performance dipped in the final two months, and has worsened in the playoffs. He’s been such a negative for the Pacers that he could spend a majority of Thursday’s game on the bench.
A Game Six victory for Atlanta would be an historic one, marking one of the biggest collapses the NBA has ever seen. Only five No.8 seeds have beaten a No.1 seed in NBA history. Two of those came in the five-game format, and the Chicago Bulls lost Derrick Rose in Game One, when they lost as the top seed in 2012.
Player To Watch: Paul George
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Place: Philips Arena
TV Channel: NBATV
Point Spread: Hawks by one point
Prediction: Atlanta 98, Indiana 92