The Hawks will travel to Indiana on Sunday to take on the Pacers at 1 PM (TNT) to begin their first-round series. Atlanta has played Indiana four times this season to an even 2-2 split, with each team winning both home games. The Hawks will have to break that trend and get a road victory if they are to move on to the second round. The good news, beating the Pacers at home is not an impossible task. The Pacers were 30-11 at home this year, but have lost three of their last four home games. Indiana possesses about as much of a home-court advantage as the Hawks do (IND: 25th in attendance, ATL: 26th) which is why this is the 1 PM game on Sunday, and will be "featured" on NBATV on Wednesday night (7:30 PM). Here, we will breakdown the key match-ups that will be the deciding factors in this series.
The Pacers calling card is their defense. Indiana ranked first in the NBA with a defensive rating of 99.8 and second in points per game allowed at 90.7. They struggle however on offense, ranking 20th in the NBA with an offensive rating of 104.3 and 23rd with 94.7 points per game. The key for the Hawks will be to speed up the Pacers by creating turnovers to get out on the fast-break and get easy baskets. The turnover battle will be key (I know it's a cliche, but it's true). The Pacers are 19-19 when turning the ball over 15 or more times and Atlanta is 27-13 when forcing 15 or more turnovers.
As for the key match-ups, the three players to focus on for Indiana are Roy Hibbert, Paul George, and David West.
Hibbert is the anchor of the Pacers defense, patrolling the paint as a 7-foot-3 deterrent to those attempting to get to the rim. Hibbert has not been nearly the same player he was last year, but he is still an imposing presence who has the length to block shots (4th in NBA with 2.6 per game) and bother Al Horford in the post. Hibbert's defensive rebounding has fallen off dramatically from last season, but he still is one of the top offensive rebounders in the NBA with an offensive rebounding percentage of 14.8%.
The Hawks have handled Hibbert allowing him to score just 9.5 ppg on 46.2% shooting along with just 7.3 rebounds per game. On the offensive end, Horford's mid-range shooting threat is able to draw Hibbert out of the lane, nullifying his best attribute: protecting the rim. The Hawks will have to be creative with their offensive sets to pull Hibbert out of the paint by running a lot of pick-and-roll/pop with Horford and Al will have to be knocking down those shots (as he has been most of the year) to be enough of a threat to force Hibbert to guard him.
George in his expanded role this year due to Danny Granger's absence has become one of the top defenders in the NBA. George led the NBA in defensive win shares with 6.3 while West was ninth with 4.7. George's length and quickness made him a tough opponent for perimeter players, and he was near the top of the league in steals with 1.8 per game (8th) and a 2.6 steal percentage (16th).
On offense, George has been good, but inefficient. George has shot 41.9% from the field this season and that drops to just 39.4% from the field in the half-court. He has been more effective playing off the ball coming off of screens to help him create his shot, so Atlanta will have to do a good job of denying him the ball when he runs off of screens. George has played well against Atlanta, scoring 18.3 ppg on 44.8% shooting along with 6.8 rebounds.
The Hawks' big lineup gave George problems on the defensive end at times because he was forced to guard Josh Smith in the post. In the first meeting, Smith scored on four consecutive possessions on four straight post-ups against George. The Hawks have gone to that lineup with varying success in the subsequent match-ups, but they will not be able to rely on the big lineup nearly as much due to Zaza Pachulia's absence.
Johan Petro would be the man to step into the center spot in the Hawks big lineup to allow Smith to play against George, but Petro has been awful against the Pacers this year. Petro is shooting 46.7% from the field for 4.7 ppg in 12 minutes per game against Indiana and he's been atrocious defensively. Petro has a defensive rating of 131.7 in 36 minutes against the Pacers. There is no doubt Petro will be used by Larry Drew in this series to help match-up Hibbert, but his playing time should be used sparingly and only for short spurts to give Horford a rest.
The biggest match-up problem for the Hawks against the Pacers this year has been David West. West is averaging 21.3 ppg on 53.2% shooting against the Hawks. Atlanta has struggled to deal with West's strength in the post and his ability to step outside and make jumpers. West has taken advantage of the Hawks poor defense on pick-and-rolls/pops to get separation for his jump shot, and has used his superior strength to back down Josh Smith and Al Horford on the block. The Hawks will have to find a way to disturb West's rhythm if they are to win the series. Offensively, everything has come easy for West against Atlanta. He is getting wide-open jumpers and has been able to get very good positioning in the post. Atlanta needs to find a way to force West off of his spot in the post (fronting or doubling) and also play him more aggressively on pick-and-pop plays.
On the perimeter, the Hawks will have to apply pressure and force turnovers. Jeff Teague and Devin Harris have been playing extremely well of late (Larry Drew hinted at them being the starting backcourt for the playoffs last week), and will be crucial on the defensive end if the Hawks are to force turnovers and get out on the fast-break. George Hill has very quietly had an excellent year offensively, but Teague can bother him if he is aggressive on the defensive end. Lance Stephenson has cut down on his turnover percentage this year (21.4 to 14.4), but still has a tendency to make poor decisions when pressured.
In the halfcourt offense, Atlanta will have to run a lot of pick-and-pop with Horford to open up the rest of their offense. The likely starters will be Teague, Harris, Kyle Korver, Smith, and Horford, which means the Pacers will have a distinct size advantage. The Hawks will have to utilize their superior speed and quickness to create open shots at all five positions. Indiana has a tendency to switch screens, so the Hawks can take advantage by setting a lot of off-ball screens to set up mismatches, especially in the post if they can get George on Smith or Horford. As you can see from the shot chart, the Hawks have had some success against the Pacers, and they will need to create good three-point shot opportunities if they are going to win.
The Hawks can beat the Pacers, but to do so they will have to force turnovers, move the ball on offense, and keep West and George in check on the defensive end. If they let it be a low-scoring, half-court game for most of the series it will end poorly for Atlanta. Speed is their advantage, now it is time to see if they can exploit it.