When the 2014 NBA Playoffs begin on Saturday the Atlanta Hawks will be the only team playing that finished with a sub .500 record during the regular season. They will enter their first-round playoff series as a significant underdog against the Indiana Pacers however, there are some areas that should concern the East's top seed.
Atlanta split four regular season meetings with the Pacers and have had a run of success against Indiana over their seven-straight playoff seasons. Atlanta fell in six games to the Pacers in the 2013 Playoffs winning Games 3 & 4 at Philips Arena before falling in Game 6. So these teams aren't strangers and are very familiar with each other from over the years.
Indiana has been one of the best defensive clubs in the league all season long but according to NBA.com's John Schuhmann the Hawks had the most efficient offense against the Pacers of any other Eastern Conference team. Atlanta scored 104.6 points per 100 possessions against Indiana and had a 58 percent true shooting percentage.
The numbers are skewed somewhat due to Atlanta's 107-88 win at Indiana on April 6 in which they shot 56 percent and made 12 three-pointers.
One common thread in both Atlanta wins was the play of Pero Antic who averaged 17 points and five rebounds in two games against the Pacers. Antic shot an eye popping 72 percent from the floor and 60 percent from the three-point range and put a lot of pressure on Indiana center Roy Hibbert to have to defend the perimeter.
There is more to it however than Antic just simply sitting behind the three-point line and firing away. Indiana writer Conrad Brunner recently discussed the problems that Antic and the Hawks present and indicated that a lot of the issues begin with point guard Jeff Teague.
Defensively, the Pacers' problem with Antic has started on the perimeter, where George Hill has struggled mightily to contain the quickness of Hawks point guard Jeff Teague. That has left Hibbert in no-man's land, caught between chasing his man to the perimeter and providing help in the lane. When Hibbert chooses to provide help, the defenders assigned to rotate and cover Antic have been either too small to contest his shot or too late in arriving to disrupt his rhythm.
Teague finished with 25 points in the win at Indiana and the problems containing him by the Pacers' guards were on full display just as Brunner describes. Atlanta's three-point shooting is a big part of their attack but it takes penetration by Teague and others to get their shooters open looks.
Indiana did a pretty good job of limiting Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap in each of the matchups and Mike Budenholzer and his staff will no doubt be looking for ways to get them into the flow during the playoff series. Korver shot the ball well against the Pacers averaging 14 points on 65 percent shooting in the four games. However, the Pacers were able to limit the damage by holding Korver to just over eight shot attempts per game in the regular season.
Indiana was one of the few teams to keep Paul Millsap in check this season. He averaged just 8.8 points on 31 percent shooting in the four games. He's another player that the Hawks will try to utilize to stretch Indiana's defense and lure their bigs away from the basket.
Despite Indiana's recent struggles it would be one of the biggest upsets in recent history for the Hawks to win the series. If the regular season showed anything however, it might not be the cakewalk that a lot of 1-8 matchups turn out to be in the playoffs.
Key for Atlanta will be the play of Jeff Teague and the Hawks' ability to knock down open three-point looks when they get them. Atlanta has struggled defensively for most of the second half of the season and simply cannot afford many lapses in the post season.
With all of that said, the Hawks can simply go into the playoffs loose with no real pressure and no expectation. Everyone expects them to lose. Grabbing an early win in the series or controlling home court when the series shifts back to Philips Arena could put a lot of pressure on an Indiana team that wasn't a close knit group down the final stretch of the season. If the Hawks can force a Game 6 or 7 then all of the pressure will be on the Pacers.
For the Hawks they have nothing to lose.