Do they have to play this series? Do we really have to watch it and pay close attention?
Look, we all know how bad the Leastern Conference was this season, and we all knew that there would be at least one bad team crashing the party. And the one we ended up with is an Atlanta Hawks team whose general manager, Danny Ferry, said a few weeks back that it really didn’t matter if the Hawks qualified for the postseason or not.
Way to set the bar high, Danny.
So the Hawks come in after having gone 38-44 in the regular season, although they did finish with a flourish by defeating Indiana, Brooklyn and Miami during April. They go up against an Indiana Pacers team that has been going through such a crisis over the past month that coach Frank Vogel benched all of his starters a week ago for a game against the Milwaukee Bucks that the Pacers needed to have to stay in contention for the No. 1 seed.
The Pacers reserves came through in that game, and Indiana defeated Miami for the third time this season to reclaim their spot atop the conference rankings — the spot they occupied for all but a couple of days throughout the regular season.
This is another matchup that could be a cure for insomnia, and as we mentioned in the Bobcats-Heat preview, weak lead-in games do not help the NBA when it comes to negotiating television contracts. Let’s all hope that this series and the Heat series end in sweeps, which will allow Games 5, 6 and 7 in the other series to be played earlier than they otherwise would be.
1. What has been wrong with the Pacers lately, anyway?
Well, the goal in basketball is to score more points than your opponent. But when scoring points is like pulling teeth, there is a problem.
And Indiana has had that problem for about a month now.They did manage to surpass 100 points four times in seven games during April, including 102 in a quality win over Oklahoma City last Sunday, but in March they reached 100 only twice in 18 games. And their point total was in the 70s five times and in the 80s four times.
How bad was it? Well, in November and December the Pacers were leading the league in point differential, failing to reach 90 points just once over those entire two months. That was back when Paul George was being spoken of as an MVP candidate, a conversation that hasn’t taken place on a meaningful level for a good four months now.
2. Are the Pacers struggles mostly because of George? Or is someone else to blame.
When you stand 7-foot-2, you should be able to grab two or three rebounds with your eyes closed and your feet not leaving the floor. Somehow, Roy Hibbert was not able to do that on repeated occasions.
Hibbert, lest you forget, was an All-Star this season.
But his production dropped off a cliff over the second half of the season, and his boxscore lines in March and April included these doozies: 0-for-9; 0-for-5; 0-for-5 and 1-for-9. In 18 games in the month of March, Hibbert failed to reach six rebounds 15 times. In seven April games, it happened five times.
George had his own troubles, going from a guy who averaged 24 points and shot 48 percent from the field in the first month of the season to a guy who shot 37 percent in March with a scoring average that dipped to 18.7.
If George and Hibbert don’t get their acts together, this team will go out against a team it is supposed to beat (although I can’t imagine it being the Hawks) and Frank Vogel will be out of a job.
3. What do the Hawks need to do to win?
Ride their All-Star, that’s what.
Paul Millsap was one of the more underappreciated free agent signings of last summer, even though he did make the All-Star festivities in New Orleans. After Al Horford went down for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, Millsap produced 30 double-doubles despite having every opposing defense key on him.
Millsap is not a guy who is going to give you 30 points on any given night (in fact, he reached 30 just two times, both in December), but he will be somewhere between the high teens and the low 20s and will not make many mistakes. David West and Luis Scola will be the players defending him, and with their 12 combined fouls, they can afford to be a little extra aggressive.
The only other offensive player the Hawks can ride is Kyle Korver, who shot an astounding .472 from 3-point range despite taking 392 attempts — although we should probably mention Jeff Teague, whose 16.5 points came on 42 percent shooting.
4. What intangible is going to make the biggest difference.
If the Pacers have things going, it’ll be bench strength. But whether those bench players have things going remains to be seen.
Evan Turner, their prized pickup from the Philadelphia 76ers, averaged only 7.1 points on 41 percent shooting in 27 games. Scola, who is starting to show the mileage on his wheels, never got into an offensive groove coming off the bench for the first time in his career and averaged a pedestrian 7.6 points and 4.8 rebounds. Scola’s value will be judged by what he brings in the playoffs, but for now it looks as though young Mr. Ryan McDonough fleeced old Mr. Larry Bird in getting Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a No. 1 pick for the Argentinian forward.
Another thing the Pacers learned during their slump was how valuable of a player backup point guard C.J. Watson is. Watson missed extended time with an injury, coinciding with the Pacers massive offensive slump. He was supposed to be a difference maker for the second unit, and like Scola, he’ll be judged on what he brings during the postseason.
The Hawks do not have a bench. Okay, they have one, but I dare you to name one player on it aside from Lou Williams.
5. Which Pacers team will we see? The dominant one from November, December and January, or the train wreck from March?
The guess here is that the March malaise was just a blip, and these guys will come ready to play — with Lance Stephenson being their most important make-or-break player. When he is on his game (he led the NBA in triple doubles), the Pacers are a better than average offensive team. When he is struggling, it seems to become contagious.
All things considered, this really should be a sweep. The Hawks won 38 games, folks. Thirty-eight. If they win this series, it’ll be one of the biggest upsets in NBA history.
MORE PLAYOFF PREVIEWS
CHRIS SHERIDAN – PACERS in 4
MARK HEISLER – PACERS in 5
JAN HUBBARD – PACERS in 5
DANNY SCHAYES – PACERS in 4
CHRIS BERNUCCA – PACERS in 6
PETER MAY – PACERS in 7
BOBBY GONZALEZ – PACERS in 5
SHLOMO SPRUNG – PACERS in 5
JIM PARK – PACERS in 6
MIKE SCOTTO – PACERS in 4
ANDY KAMENETZKY – PACERS in 6
BRIAN KAMENETZKY – PACERS in 5