The Pacers return to the postseason a year after leading Miami 2-1 in the second round before losing in six games. With a big and physical interior defense, Indiana has played with an edginess that suggests a confidence that no opponent is unbeatable. Equally important, 22-year-old Paul George's development into a defense-shifting threat and Lance Stephenson's emergence as an energy-changing contributor have allowed the Pacers to weather the loss of Danny Granger, who has been sidelined most of the season with a knee injury.
The Hawks' future is not focused so much on late spring as mid-summer, when general manager Danny Ferry will look to retool a team with only three guaranteed contracts for next season and the potential for more than $30 million in salary-cap space. The current talent, though, is formidable and capable of creating matchup problems inside and on the perimeter. That should make for a surprisingly intriguing series between teams devoid of marquee names, if not a highly rated one.
Why the Pacers Will Win
No team defends more completely than Indiana, the NBA leader in opponents' field-goal percentage and three-point percentage. Offenses must work past a perimeter manned by the length and athleticism of Paul George and George Hill before getting bullied by David West in the paint and trying to maneuver around Roy Hibbert, who ranked second in in the NBA total blocks. That's why teams scored a league-low 96.6 points per 100 possessions against Indiana. It's also why the Pacers won 49 games with an offense that lacked consistency, saw Hibbert regress as a weapon and had Granger for all of five games.
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Why the Hawks Will Win
The Hawks have plenty of options to attack Indiana's stingy defense. Jeff Teague continues to grow as a point guard, leading an offense that finished second to the Spurs in assists. Al Horford's mid-range game can force Hibbert out of the paint. Josh Smith's drives can make Indiana scramble. And Kyle Korver, a 45.7 percent three-point shooter, can get hot from long range.
Atlanta's greatest asset may be in how well the roster can match up with the Pacers. (The teams split the season series 2-2, with the home team winning all four games.) Smith has the size and quickness to hassle George when that matchup materializes. Teague may not be an elite defender, but he certainly is capable of checking Hill. And Horford and backup big men Ivan Johnson and Johan Petro offer just enough beef to trade body blows with Hibbert, West and Tyler Hansbrough.
The uncertainty surrounding the future of this roster doesn't provide much of a rallying point. But with so many players likely headed to free agency, the mercenary call to play well for the next deal should spur a collection of inspired efforts.
Keep An Eye On ...
David West. With his mid-range game, West provides the Pacers perhaps their most reliable source of offense. George has put together a season worthy of Most Improved Player consideration, but he has suffered through extended shooting slumps and hit a career-low 41.9 percent from the field overall. Hibbert shot a career-low 44.8 percent despite taking the vast majority of his shots inside 10 feet. West's ability to set a solid pick and pop out and make a mid-range jumper has become a staple of the Pacers' offense. An offense as spotty as Indiana's will need West's skills to prevent the long droughts that can kill a team as opponents learn each other's tendencies.
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Indiana in 6. The Pacers' game plan is built for the slower pace of the postseason, but the roster has enough youth to adjust to an opponent that wants to run. The Hawks are almost an accidental participant in these playoffs, built to be torn down but composed of enough talent that they are better than most of the East teams in the midst of rebuilding. That talent will make the series interesting, but Indiana's motivation to build on last year's postseason makes the difference.