For Pacers, these playoffs are everything

The Hawks may not be viewed as a major threat, but they are very well-coached by first-year man Mike Budenholzer, and they do create some matchup problems.

Howard Smith/Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana Pacers vs. Atlanta Hawks

Game 1, First Round, Eastern Conference Playoffs

Venue: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis.

TV: 7 p.m., FOX Sports South (Atlanta); ESPN.

Projected Starters

ATLANTA: C Pero Antic; PF Paul Millsap; SF DeMarre Carroll; SG Kyle Korver; PG Jeff Teague.

INDIANA: C Roy Hibbert; PF David West; SF Paul George; SG Lance Stephenson; PG George Hill.

Pregame Observations:

— The Pacers enter the playoffs with the following reality: This is it. If they don’t at least reach the conference finals, and at least give a strong showing once there, noticeable changes may be on the way. This is a huge postseason for the Pacers and they know it. Before the All-Star break in February, no one in Indiana would be nervous about that. Of course the Pacers would give a strong showing, everyone thought. This was, it appeared, their year.

NBA playoff picks: Have Pacers returned to proper path?

— Then came whatever that was after the break. As good as the Pacers were before then, they were every bit as disjointed after. They couldn’t score. The ball stopped moving. The defense was shaky. Mostly, the Pacers seemed to lose the cocky edge and togetherness that made them so dangerous. Following a loss to Washington in late March, Roy Hibbert called out his teammates. "Some selfish dudes in here," he said of the locker room. Things were unraveling.

— Still, the strong start was better than the bad end to the regular season. It’s why the Pacers were able to hold on to the No. 1 seed in the East (by the hair on their chinny chin chin). The playoffs afforded coach Frank Vogel and his talented team a second chance to be as good as they think they are … or at least as good as they thought they once were. The pre-All-Star break Pacers are good enough to win a championship. The post-break Pacers are divided enough to fall in the first round. Yes, even to the Hawks, who hardly dashed into the postseason themselves.

— Hibbert said Friday he was out of line for the remarks about selfishness. That’s a good start, because a lot of what happens with the Pacers comes down to their 7-foot-1 center. That’s no secret. Paul George will do his thing. David West will do his. But no one can ever be too sure what the Pacers will get from Lance Stephenson, George Hill, the guys off the bench and especially, Hibbert. Again, no one really worried about it before. Today, it’s a concern.

— The "Bad Boys" documentary about the old Detroit Pistons aired Thursday and has garnered much attention since the regular season ended. It was the story of a nasty team that overcame multiple losses to Larry Bird’s Celtics in the playoffs. Once those Pistons finally got past that Celtics, they lost to Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the Finals. Then, finally, they won two consecutive titles (1989 and ’90). Yes, the Pistons boasted star point guard Isiah Thomas. But they played a physical, knock-’em-down brand of basketball that focused on defense and cohesiveness. These Pacers, at their best, can be like those Pistons.

— The Pacers aren’t a dirty team, but they will come after you. They will make you think twice about going to the basket. They fear (and respect) no one. If they do respect you, you’ll never know it. They clearly aren’t in the friendship business. That sets them apart from a lot of other contenders. Stephenson is the leader when it comes to that us-against-the-world approach. Deep down, the Pacers really believe they can beat LeBron James and the Heat. And like those old Pistons, today’s Pacers seemed to get better with each postseason appearance. They’ve lost to the Heat two straight years, last season in seven games in the East finals. The next logical step would be to overcome the Heat and take center stage. At the start of the year, that seemed quite doable. Now? Well, brace yourselves. This is it.

— The Hawks may not be viewed as a major threat (at least, not in a seven-game series), but they are very well-coached by first-year man Mike Budenholzer, and they do create some matchup problems. Jeff Teague is having a career year. Kyle Korver doesn’t miss from the perimeter. Pero Antic is the type of center with range that Hibbert hates trying to defend. And Paul Millsap is the second-best player (behind George) in this series. The Hawks seem to be at their best when they play loose and act like they have nothing to lose. That is their approach coming in.

— So which team are the Pacers? If the answer is the team that everyone feared prior to March, then they will go places. If the answer is something else, the something we saw the past 25 or so games, then be prepared. This summer could result in some big changes. And nobody who cares about this team wants to go down that road.