Pacers Open in Atlanta

BY foxsports • October 25, 2009


Following their second straight postseason appearance, the Atlanta Hawks spent this summer re-signing several of their key players.

A return to the second round of the playoffs, though, won't be enough for the championship-hungry Hawks.

Atlanta opens its 2009-10 season Wednesday night when its hosts the Indiana Pacers, who are hoping a change in defensive philosophy will help them reach the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

Rather than celebrating the team's first playoff series victory in a decade, the Hawks have been focused on keeping pace with the Eastern Conference's elite teams.

"Cleveland is trying to win it all," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson, whose team defeated Miami in seven games before getting swept by the Cavaliers in the Eastern semifinals. "Orlando, they're going to be there and Boston has just taken it to another level, I think.

"I sure hope we're right there at that fourth spot."

The Hawks, who finished fourth in the East in 2008-09 at 47-35, re-signed point guard Mike Bibby in the offseason to a three-year, $18 million deal. In his first full season with Atlanta, Bibby averaged 14.9 points and 5.0 assists.

"I think it's a good situation for me here with this coaching staff," he said. "Woody is one of the best coaches I've played for. You look at what we have and what we have coming back, and we believe in ourselves. We think we can get it done."

So does backup center Zaza Pachulia, who rejoins Josh Smith and Al Horford in the frontcourt after inking a four-year extension in the offseason.

"It would be very hard for me to leave this team and go somewhere else," said Pachulia, who averaged 6.2 points and 5.7 rebounds in 2008-09. "I'm looking forward to building on it and go even farther, to not be satisfied with the second round and go for the championship."

The Hawks signed Marvin Williams to a five-year extension in August, but they were unable to negotiate a new deal for star guard Joe Johnson, who enters the final year of his contract after averaging 21.4 points and 5.8 assists last season.

Atlanta lost backup guard Flip Murray and his 12.2 points per game off the bench, but it made a major offseason addition by acquiring Jamal Crawford from Golden State for Acie Law and Speedy Claxton.

Crawford, who hasn't come off the bench since 2006-07 with New York, feels there is plenty of opportunities in the Hawks' crowded backcourt, which also includes first-round draft pick Jeff Teague.

"I think we'll all play off each other and help each other," Crawford said. "We're all veterans who have been in the game for a while now, so we understand what we need to win."

While the Hawks are looking for an extended playoff run, the Pacers are just trying to get there after finishing 36-46 the past two seasons.

Improving a defense that yielded 106.2 points per game last season - 26th in the league - was a point of emphasis for Indiana in the offseason.

"We enter this season having looked at what we thought was a weakness from the standpoint of the defensive end," Pacers coach Jim O'Brien said. "We drafted and signed guys that we believe have the capability of helping make that a strength of ours instead of a weakness."

After watching Dahntay Jones pester opponents during the Denver Nuggets' run to the Western Conference finals last season, Indiana signed the guard to a four-year deal.

"We've been talking about defense for a while here," Pacers president Larry Bird said. "When you watch all these guys play at a high level, you see what they're really made out of. He showed us a lot. It was somebody who we targeted right after the playoffs, and we went after him, and fortunately, we got him."

The Pacers are still expecting a major contribution from Tyler Hansbrough, whom they drafted 13th overall in this summer's draft, but the ACC's all-time leading scorer is still working his way back from a right shin injury.

The development of second-year players Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert will be key for a Pacers team that's looking for scoring help for Danny Granger, who was fifth in the NBA last season with 25.8 points per game.

"A lot is going to be on their shoulders and it is only their second year," Granger told the Pacers' official Web site. "They are still young guys and will carry a lot of responsibility for the team. Roy can score the ball in the low post and Brandon can do a lot of things."

Pacers forward Troy Murphy was second in rebounding (11.8) and tied for fourth in the league with 49 double doubles in 2008-09.

Atlanta has won four straight and six of seven at home versus Indiana.

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