By Sam Kuperman
How the Pacers Got Here: For a majority of the year, the Pacers have been one of the best teams in the entire league as Indianaâ€™s 56-26 record is the 4th best in the association. The Pacers have dominated at home, posting a 35-6 mark at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The team started off extremely hot with a 44-13 record through the end of February, but struggled down the stretch, going 12-13 to close out the season.
Indiana made a few big moves throughout the season, including signing former all-star center Andrew Bynum in January, and trading longtime small forward Danny Granger to Philadelphia (where he was subsequently released), for swingman Evan Turner.
Head coach Frank Vogel constantly preaches defense, and it shows in the way the team plays. Indiana defends extremely well with big man Roy Hibbert controlling the paint and Paul George locking down the perimeter. This had led to much of its success as teams average a measly 92.3 points per game against the Pacers.
How the Hawks Got Here: Atlantaâ€™s season can be categorized in two different parts. The first part is the two-month stretch with all-star center Al Horford in which the Hawks went 16-13 and were one of only 3 teams in the Eastern Conference that had a winning record.
After Horford tore his pectoral muscle against the Cavs in late December, the Hawks ultimately had a big void to fill. While Atlanta had its fair share of struggles, it ultimately made the playoffs with a 37-44 record due to both a late season surge, and a weak Eastern Conference this year.
Atlanta and first year head coach Mike Budenholzer were able to go 7-3 through its final 10 games to ultimately fend off the Knicks and Cavs for the final playoff spot in the East. All-Star power forward Paul Millsap carried the team throughout the year in Horfordâ€™s absence, as his 17.9 ppg and 8.5 rpg were enough to help carry this team down the stretch, as the Knicks and Cavs faltered.
Pacers Key Player: Roy Hibbert is going to be key for Indiana. In this series he will be matched up against the likes of Pero Antic so Hibbert should have the clear advantage down on the block. In the past we have seen what the Pacers big man is capable of. He came up huge in the playoffs last season, as he averaged 17 points and 9.9 rebounds per game while rejecting nearly two shots per contest. Hibbertâ€™s play was especially crucial against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
While sometimes Hibbert tends to become a non-factor in games, he has the capability to dominate in the paint on both ends. Indiana will need superstar Paul George to step up as well, but Hibbert is the guy that can make or break a series, and ultimately the teamâ€™s playoff hopes. Roy Hibbert playing like an elite center is the difference between an early exit for Indiana, and a shot at a ring.
Hawks Key Player: The one position Atlanta has the advantage at is point guard, so Jeff Teague will be key for the Hawks. While Atlanta greatly relies on Millsap to help win games, he is one of the most consistent players in the association, so you know what type of production he will provide his team. Teague on the other hand is a complete enigma. While he averages 16.5 points and 6.7 assists per game, the 4th year vet has the capability to completely dominate his opponent.
In the battle at the one between him and George Hill, Teague should have the advantage; He is a better offensive player and is certainly a better distributor. For the Hawks to pull of the upset, Teague will have to take his game to the next level. The Pacers defend the paint extremely well, so Teagueâ€™s presence on the perimeter will be vital in this series.
Why the Pacers Will Win: There is no question that Indiana has the advantage in this series. The Pacers are a team that dominated its competition for almost the entire regular season and look like a clear contender. If Paul George is playing like the superstar that he is, everything else should fall into place.
We are talking about arguably the best defensive team in the game of basketball, so points will be hard to come by for any team, let along a team that struggles offensively to begin with. Paul Millsap may be an all-star but David West is certainly capable of holding his own at the four spot. As long as Indiana can contain Millsap and Teague, I donâ€™t see a way that Atlanta can win this series.
Why the Hawks Will Win: Granted that this would take an absolute miracle but Atlanta could very well pull off the upset if the stars align for this squad. While their record does not show it, this team has the capability to compete with elite teams when it is at its best. The Hawks went 2-2 against Indiana in the regular season so they have clearly proven that they can hang with the Pacers.
The question here is which Pacers team will we see? If itâ€™s the team that started the season out so dominantely, they Atlantaâ€™s chances are slim to none. However, if the team that finished 12-13 is the one that shows up, the dynamic duo of Millsap and Teague could help pull off the upset. Atlanta is very good at moving the ball, as it averages 24.9 assists per game, good for second in the entire NBA. If the Hawks can get role players involved in the game along with its main players, the team could exploit Indiana on the perimeter. An upset isnâ€™t likely, but itâ€™s more possible than the average person would think.