NBA playoffs: Hawks-Pacers preview

Paul Millsap and the Hawks were 2-2 against the Pacers this season, including a win on the road.

ATLANTA — The 2014 NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs might have more parity than any season in recent memory and that could benefit the Atlanta Hawks.

In fact, with the implosion the Indiana Pacers have experienced over the last half of the season (after a 33-7 start, Indiana finished 10-13 in its final 23 games), the Pacers could end up being a more fortuitous matchup for the Hawks than a number of other teams at the top end of the field, particularly Miami and Chicago.

In terms of confidence, the Hawks’ 107-88 win at Indiana on April 6 could be a big factor in Atlanta’s favor entering the series. Here’s a breakdown of the series:

Series Schedule

Game 1 – Sat April 19, Atlanta at Indiana, 7 p.m.
Game 2 – Tue April 22, Atlanta at Indiana, 7 p.m.
Game 3 – Thu April 24, Indiana at Atlanta, 7 p.m.
Game 4 – Sat April 26, Indiana at Atlanta, 2 p.m.
Game 5 * Mon April 28, Atlanta at Indiana, 8 p.m.
Game 6 * Thu May 1, Indiana at Atlanta, TBD
Game 7 * Sat May 3, Atlanta at Indiana, TBD

Players to Watch

Paul Millsap, Atlanta: In the eight games between March 31 and April 12, as the Hawks posted a 6-2 record and clinched a playoff berth, the All-Star forward averaged 19.9 points per game. He is the Hawks most consistent scorer and, in all probability, their MVP this year. Against the league’s top defensive team (Indiana holds opponents to 42 percent shooting), they will need his offense.

Jeff Teague, Atlanta: When the Indianapolis native is on, he makes the Hawks go and provides them with the energy and the offensive spark they need. When he is off, the Hawks are average at best. With the Hawks being one of the NBA’s top teams in terms of assists per game, the Hawks will need Teague to distribute and get to his 6.7 assists per game average — if not exceed it. The good news? Playing in his hometown tends to motivate him.

Roy Hibbert, Indiana: The 7-foot-2 center has been a major reason for Indiana’s late-season swoon. He’ll need to overcome his recent struggles (particularly on offense), because the Pacers major advantage against the Hawks is their size. If Hibbert (10.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.3 blocks per game) is not a factor, it will very much play in the Hawks’ favor.

Key Matchup

In the first four games of the Hawks-Pacers series from last year’s playoffs, Paul George averaged 21.6 points per game after averaging 17.4 in the regular season. This season he has averaged 21.7 points and if he is at the top of his game, he gives Indiana the kind of breakout star that the Hawks have trouble matching on the perimeter. If George scores the way he usually does — considering the way the Pacers play defense — the Hawks will have a hard time winning games. 

Most of the defensive duties in terms of guarding George will fall to Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll, who always draws the assignment of the opposing team’s elite perimeter scorer. Despite receiving those difficult assignments, Carroll averages a plus-1.2 points per game, meaning the Hawks score more when he is on the court than their opponents do. Indiana happens to be one of the NBA’s lower-scoring teams (the Pacers average 96.7 points per game, 24th in the NBA) and, as a result, rely heavily on George, whereas the Hawks are tied for 14th in the league in scoring at 100.9 points per game. 

If Carroll and the Hawks, through strong team defense, can limit George, they will greatly increase their chances to win the series. Easier said than done.

X-Factor

Last season when the Hawks played Indiana in the playoffs, they had a legitimate chance to win the series. They were tied 2-2 after four games and the Hawks lost deciding game six by eight points, trailing by three with less than three minutes left in regulation. The Hawks played that series without their top scorer off the bench, Lou Williams. 

This season, Williams is back from the season-ending knee surgery he underwent last year and can provide the kind of scoring punch that, to an extent, the Pacers lack. After a slow start, Williams is beginning to round into form. He also tends to like the spotlight and rise to the occasion. He scored 23 points last Saturday against the league’s marquee team, the Miami Heat, in a game that helped the Hawks clinch a playoff berth. He also scored 22 on March 31 in a 103-95 win over Philadelphia, the team that drafted and developed him, to help snap a six-game losing streak for the Hawks. 

If Williams can perform at that level against Indiana, it will greatly enhance the Hawks’ chances.​​