The Indiana Pacers have crossed over into the mainstream with All-Star players like Paul George and Roy Hibbert being thrust into the consciousness as leaders of a 56-win NBA team. With that comes a ton of attention, for better or worse, but sometimes, it can lead to a bit of inflation with regard to how good the actual talent is up and down the roster, and that may be the case as they take on the Atlanta Hawks in the opening round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs.
In that vein, the player-by-player match-ups always undergo a great deal of scrutiny in a 7-game playoff series (with good reason), and a thorough evaluation of the talent on both sides often leads to a good idea of who will win the series. Let's break it down.
It is often said that the Atlanta Hawks begin and end with their sometimes enigmatic point guard, Jeff Teague, and it is tough to argue. For the season, the Hawks have been nearly 25 points better with Teague on the floor in wins than they are in losses (wow), and Jeff's individual numbers dip considerably across the board in games where Atlanta is on the wrong end of the scoreboard. Against Indiana (again, in small samples), Teague averaged 20 points per game in the 2 wins versus 8.5 points per game in the 2 losses, and usually, it comes down to aggressiveness for the 25-year-old creator.
He'll be facing off against George Hill (who I like), and frankly, Teague has to win this match-up for the Hawks to have a prayer. The 6-foot-2 Hill provides a difficult match-up for Jeff from a length perspective, but the former Spurs guard is the consensus "worst" player in Indiana's starting five, and he's had a relatively underwhelming season, averaging just 10.3 points and 3.5 assists with his worst PER (13.4) since his rookie season.
The biggest worry here is certainly on the defensive end for Atlanta, where Teague is often the subject of (deserved) ridicule, and Hill can make the Hawks pay (he's a 36.5% 3-point shooter) if Teague loses him on the defensive end. Still, it all comes down to aggressiveness with Teague, and Atlanta desperately needs him to attack relentlessly here.
This is a spot where the Hawks are in better shape than many would believe. Stephenson has had a tremendous season, averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds (elite for a wing player) and 4.6 assists per game while playing above-average defense. Against Atlanta, though, Stephenson hasn't exactly been at his best, averaging just under 9 points per game in the 3 meetings where he played.
As for Korver, you know the story by now in that he led the NBA in 3-point shooting this season (better than 47%), and against the Pacers, his numbers were even better with 65% from the floor and 50% (10 for 20) from 3-point range this season. Still, this is a tough match-up on paper for Kyle, simply because both Stephenson and Paul George (who will see considerable time on him defensively) present athletic length on the defensive end, and if they aren't forced to help, each player is capable of sticking close to Korver in the half court.
On the defensive end, it may seem like a mismatch, but Korver is fully capable of slowing Stephenson. Kyle has achieved an undeserved bad rap defensively from the casual observer (read: he's a top-tier perimeter shooter who happens to be Caucasian), but he is actually an average defender (at worst) individually and a plus-defender from the perspective of team defense. Stephenson will likely be asked to do a considerable amount of offensive creation for Indy in the series, but as long as Korver is guarding him and not Paul George, everything will be fine.
Small Forward - Paul George (Indiana) vs. DeMarre Carroll (Atlanta)
Speaking of Paul George, he is the best player in the series and he'll garner the best wing defender on the Atlanta roster in DeMarre Carroll. On the plus side, though, George has struggled in coinciding with the issues that have plagued the Pacers in the second half of the season.
For the year, George averaged nearly 22 points and 7 rebounds per game in his breakout campaign, but after the All-Star break, he slipped to less than 40% from the field (unacceptable from a wing player) and seemed to lose confidence. He has struggled a bit against Carroll and the Hawks this season, shooting less than 41% from the field and 33% from 3, but in fairness, those numbers are fairly in line with his season totals.
Carroll's defensive impact will certainly be the most important thing during this series, and the task is basically to keep George from fully taking things over. No one expects (or rather, should expect) Carroll to "lock him down", but if he can keep PG to his season-long numbers or worse, that is a win. Offensively, DeMarre has been good at knocking down his open looks this season (36% from three) and that is his main objective on that end in this series. In a perfect world, Carroll wouldn't be asked to create anything in the way of offense against either George or Stephenson, but if he can make threes, that's a plus.
Paul Millsap is the lone All-Star on the active Atlanta Roster (sorry, Al), but he doesn't have the defined advantage at his position that you may expect. Millsap has the better numbers at 18 points and nearly 9 rebounds per game against just 14 and 7 from West, but the workloads are very different, and there is probably a faction of pundits that would rate West as the better overall player despite the numbers (even the advanced ones) favoring Millsap this season.
Still, Millsap has visibly struggled against the Pacers to the tune of 31% shooting and only 9 points per game in the 4 meetings (yikes), and no frontcourt player enjoys facing off with Indiana. Simply put, the Hawks can't expect to fully compete in this series with that low level of production from Paul, and while he doesn't necessarily need to average 20 a game, he must present efficiency on the offensive end.
Defensively, Millsap matches up just fine with West, but if there's a spot where the veteran power forward can be lethal, it is in the mid-range. He is a devastating jump shooter from that 15-foot distance, and if Millsap (or whoever is responsible for him) is forced to help or be isolated in the pick-and-pop game, West is capable of beating Atlanta with that arsenal.
Center - Roy Hibbert (Indiana) vs. Pero Antic (Atlanta)
To be honest, this particular face-off is garnering more attention than I thought, and for the most part, it is positive for the Hawks. Atlanta was the most efficient offense in the entire league against Indiana this season, scoring 104.6 points per 100 possessions in the 4 games, and while Antic was only on the floor in 2 of those contests, the Hawks were even better when he played.
While it is easy to overrate plus/minus in small sample sizes, the Hawks were +26.0 points per 100 possessions (!!!) with Pero on the floor in the 2 games that he appeared in, and his numbers (17 points, 5 rebounds per game; 72% FG, 60% 3-PT) certainly back up his production. Antic is a nightmare match-up for Hibbert in that he lives the majority of his offensive life at the 3-point line, and Hibbert isn't particularly adept at showing on pick-and-pops or contesting at 23-feet.
Defensively, Antic and company have done a tremendous job against Hibbert in the 4 games, holding Hibbert to a somewhat staggering five points per game on 28% shooting from the floor. More than that, Indiana has been forced to take Hibbert off the floor a great deal (21 minutes per game), and if he can't sustain enough offense to combat the poor defensive match-up that the Hawks present, Frank Vogel may be charged to do the same.
On paper, Roy Hibbert is most certainly a better basketball player than Pero Antic, but from a match-up perspective, Antic is fully capable of causing him fits and if he can knock down threes, it could be a long series for big Roy.
It is certainly possible that each of the respective coaches (Mike Budenholzer and Frank Vogel) could use additional bench players, I feel comfortable in stating that these 8 guys are the "primary" options for their squads. Up front, the Pacers have the biggest name in Luis Scola, but frankly, he's been a below-average player this season (13.4 PER, well below-average defensively) and the Elton Brand-Mike Scott duo should have a (mild) leg up over Scola and defensive specialist Ian Mahinmi.
On the perimeter, it is an interesting situation, as Budenholzer has shown the propensity to forego using Martin (the team's lone reserve swingman) in favor of small lineups, and I'd expect that to continue. Lou Williams has been much better in recent days (46% shooting in March and April after sub-40% prior) and Shelvin Mack has been a steadying influence on both ends this season for the Hawks. Indiana's Evan Turner is a divisive figure (to put it mildly) in the NBA thanks to his ball-stopping tendencies and inconsistent jump shot, but he would still present a match-up problem for Atlanta if Bud continues to go small off the bench. CJ Watson recently missed a stretch of 17 out of 18 games with injury issues, but if he's right, he easily presents the best perimeter shooting option off the bench, and potentially, the entire Pacers roster.
There you have it. With the Pacers as the heavy favorites as the #1 seed, many will expect a sweep or a 5-game demolition, but with a quick look at the match-ups, this one could be closer than many pundits believe. Stay tuned for continuing coverage in this space!