Posted by lethalweapon3 in lethalweapon3's Pre-Game Preview Blog, 19 April 2014 - · 15 views
“I need an Around-the-Way Guard…”Two Weeks Notice.
Effectively, that’s what the top-seeded Indiana Pacers were served during the Atlanta Hawks’ last trip to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the site of tonight’s Game 1 matchup (7:00 PM Eastern, SportSouth, ESPN).
Up until then, the Pacers were teetering on the edge of a mutinous implosion. Paul George struggled to find his jumper (39.6 FG% post-All-Star-Break), while a benched Roy Hibbert was back to sulking on the sideline and moping in the locker room, David West feuded with the refs, and Lance Stephenson and George Hill had to be separated. But despite heading toward a 12-13 finish to the season, most fans still viewed this Pacers team through a lens that showed them tearing up the league with a 16-1 start.
Through March and into the first week of April, all the Indiana Infighting looked merely like something that might imperil their fateful chance at defeating the defending champion Miami HEAT in the Conference Finals and clinching their first trip to the NBA Finals since Larry Bird and Rick Carlisle led the charge in 2000.
Then, on a Sunday evening, fresh off of two months of struggling basketball, the Atlanta Hawks dropped by the Fieldhouse and issued Indiana a warrant. It came in the form of a 107-88 shellacking that wasn’t even that close, a 55-23 halftime lead that resulted in Atlanta’s biggest margin of victory against an above-.500 team all season. On April 6, the message to Indiana was never more clear. Clean up your act. Because we might be back. You have two weeks to get your crap together. Figure out how to execute, or else we might be the ones doing the executing.
It would seem like tough talk from a team like Atlanta that scooted into the final spot of a weak Eastern Conference playoff pool, finishing the season with a losing 38-44 record, their worst in six seasons. Despite a subsequent loss in Miami, Indiana indeed seemed to right the ship in time to reclaim the East’s top spot from the HEAT, including a satisfying home win against Oklahoma City (Hibbert’s listless 0-for-9 performance notwithstanding).
But Head Coach Frank Vogel has his work cut out for him in figuring out how to consistently stifle a Hawks team that lit up the scoreboard on his Pacers with greater ease than anyone else in the Eastern Conference (104.6 points and 27.3 assists per 100 possessions, 48.2 team FG%). Conversely, only the trying-to-tank 76ers scored less often against the Hawks than Indiana did (97.3 points per 100 possessions).
Indiana has spent the last few days trying to impress upon the public that the reported internal consternation was merely a conjuring of the media. The real problem, the players and coaches insist, was a lack of rest time between games (on the season, the Hawks had 21 back-to-backs, the Pacers 20), a problem that will magically disappear now that there’s a one-or-two-day interim period going forward. Were the Pacers just playing Postseason Possum this time? It remains to be seen whether that’s the truth or just talking points.
The Pacers have each of their top five starters back from 2012-13, but they can’t roll out the same game plan they had last year, when they solved their Philips Arena hex to take the series against Larry Drew’s Hawks 4-2 in the opening round. Three of Atlanta’s top four playoff scorers, six of the Hawks’ top eight, are not with this year’s entry. Paul Millsap won’t be lofting threes as inefficiently and out-of-rhythm as professional gremlin Josh Smith did. Ivan Johnson won’t be around getting easily trolled by Indiana’s physical play. Roy Hibbert won’t be pushing Al Horford out of the paint. And the returning Hawks from last year’s series (Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott, and Shelvin Mack, a combined 36.9 FG% and 34.0 3FG% in the 2013 series) have grown far more comfortable in the flow of Budenholzer’s offensive gameplans.
With Atlanta’s centers setting screens and hanging out from the elbows out, Millsap has been tag-teamed mercilessly by West (Millsap 4-for-15 shooting, as per SportVu tracking stats) and Hibbert (Millsap 1-for-7 shooting). Yet he still found ways to contribute by other means, his 37 total rebounds the most against any team the Hawks played on four occasions this season. Millsap’s defensive rating against the Pacers (97.1 points per 100 possessions) was the best against any East playoff team this season aside from Charlotte.
According to SportVu stats, Jeff Teague has shot just 5-for-14 when he’s defended by his fellow Indy native Hill. But Teague figured out that he has little problem getting by Hill (and even Paul George) and producing offense, for himself and others, off of drives in the paint. Stephenson’s and George's occupations with Korver (10-for-20 3FGs, 64.7 FG% vs. Indiana) and the Pacer bigs packing the paint to deal with Millsap opens things up for Teague (25 points on 9-for-17 FGs on April 6) when he gets penetration. The situation for the Pacers gets all the more dire when they have to rely on the bench guards (C.J. Watson, Evan Turner and Donald Sloan, in particular) and guys like Luis Scola upfront to keep Hawk guards away from the rim. Predictably, Andrew Bynum won’t be available for this series.
Indiana needs an attitude adjustment (the “small-a” version) in the worst way. For the Pacers to seize a dominant foothold on this series, several other things must change quickly. One of Hibbert or West must trust the other’s defense of Millsap down low and come out to defend Pero Antić (3-for-4 3FGs, 7-for-8 FGs on April 6).
Hibbert struggled offensively at the outset of last year’s series until he figured out how to effectively score on jump-hooks around the rim. The dump-ins to Hibbert and West have to come early and often, as it will draw Korver and DeMarre Carroll in to help, putting that wing duo at risk of foul trouble and granting leading-scorer George (40.2 FG% from 10-to-16 feet) more room to roam from mid-range. Ultimately, to rev up Indiana’s offensive engines, it is up to Hill to get the ball to spots where his teammates are most effective.
To keep his starters fresh throughout this series Vogel will have to figure out a combination of reserves that can slow down Atlanta’s backups, particularly Lou Williams (49.0 FG%, 60.7 2FG%, 92.9 FT% in April), Mike Scott (53.8 FG%, 63.4 2FG% in April; 53.1 FG% vs. Indiana), Elton Brand (58.7 FG% in April; 53.8 FG% vs. Indiana), and Shelvin Mack (5.3 APG vs. Indiana). Atlanta’s reserves have outscored Indiana’s by 9.3 PPG this season, a gap that would be even wider had Vogel not chosen to empty the bench during Atlanta’s April 6 blowout.