Few things seemed more inevitable this season than an Eastern Conference finals rematch between the Heat and Pacers. That is, until last month, when everything that made the Pacers the best team in the first half of the season vanished without a trace. Indiana went 8-10 in March, saw its tight-knit group ripped apart by poor play on the floor and bickering off it, and looked like a team in turmoil.
The Hawks, meanwhile, rebounded from losing 14 of 15 games in February and March to stave off the Knicks for the No. 8 seed despite the absence of two-time All-Star center Al Horford. Indiana and Atlanta met in the first round of the playoffs last season, when the Pacers triumphed 4-2.
The Case For The Pacers
Even for a team in disarray, the Pacers are staggering favorites to beat the Hawks in a seven-game series. They have more talent and experience, the league's No. 1 defense (96.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) and an avalanche of motivation (or is it pressure?) after falling one game short of the Finals last season and stumbling into the playoffs this year.
Indiana appeared to turn the corner with an encouraging win over the Thunder last Sunday, but a single victory can't erase doubts created by a month's worth of poor play. Indiana's defense declined and offense deteriorated in recent weeks, but there's reason to believe that the Pacers will still handle Atlanta. The Hawks give up size at every position and lack an imposing shot-blocker, which should allow the Pacers to do what they do best: Bully opponents and dominate the paint.
The Case For The Hawks
Atlanta beat Indiana twice this season, including their most recent meeting, on April 6, when the Hawks held the Pacers to a franchise-low 23 points in the first half. One player in particular who has given Indiana trouble this season is rookie center Pero Antic. The Hawks won both games Antic played in against the Pacers and saw the sweet-shooting center average 17 points, his highest mark against any team. Antic will force Roy Hibbert to play away from the rim, which could enable Jeff Teague and others to attack the paint and free up open looks for Kyle Korver and Lou Williams.
The Hawks also enter the postseason the hotter of the two teams, winning seven of their last 10 games, including victories over the Heat and Pacers. Atlanta will need to push the tempo to challenge Indiana, something it has done with success in the past.
Roy Hibbert. No one on the Hawks is equipped to adequately guard the Pacers' 7-foot-2 center in the post, but Hibbert hasn't required much defending of late. The All-Star is mired in the worst slump of his career, shooting just 29.3 percent over his last 13 games. His rebounding numbers have also plummeted, but that's partially because Indiana is asking him to contest nearly every shot near the hoop, a task that puts him out of position.
If Hibbert is able to return to form, the Pacers will possess a giant trump card. But if the big man's struggles continue and Atlanta successfully spreads the floor, the only thing you'll see Hibbert dominating is space on the end of the bench. In four games against the Hawks this season, he averaged season lows of 21.7 minutes, five points and 28.1 percent shooting.
Pacers in five. Indiana won't take Atlanta lightly considering its recent struggles and tough matchups in the past. The Hawks are likely to win a game in Atlanta, where they've dominated the Pacers in recent years, but Paul George and Co. will be looking to make a statement early and prove they're capable of holding up their end of the bargain of a conference finals rematch.