Thursday, April 17, 2014

East Round 1 Preview: (1) Indiana Pacers vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks

Lance Stephenson and Kyle Korver should present the most interesting matchup in this first-round series.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

By The Numbers:

56-26 (35-6 Home; 21-20 Road)
PPG: 96.7 (24th); PPG Allowed: 92.4 (2nd)
+4.3 Average Scoring Margin (7th)
Off Rating: 101.4 (22nd); Def Rating: 96.8 (1st)
+4.6 Net Efficiency Rating (7th)

38-44 (24-17 Home; 14-27 Road)
PPG: 101.0 (14th); PPG Allowed: 101.5 (15th)
-0.5 Average Scoring Margin (18th)
Off Rating: 103.2 (16th); Def Rating: 104.0 (14th)
-0.8 Net Efficiency Rating (18th)

Season Series: Tied 2-2
Atlanta 97, Indiana 87 (January 8)
Indiana 89, Atlanta 85 (February 4)
Indiana 108, Atlanta 98 (February 18)
Atlanta 107, Indiana 88 (April 6)

Players To Watch:

Lance Stephenson

Obviously, he's not as good as Paul George or Roy Hibbert, or even really David West or George Hill. In fact, he's pretty clearly just the fifth-best player on this team, but for a variety of reasons, he's taken on a much higher profile (somewhat like what happened to Kendrick Perkins on the Celtics teams from 2008-2011). It appears that a lot of people have bought into the idea that Stephenson is a budding star and absolutely necessary to everything that they do offensively. One of these people is, not surprisingly, Stephenson himself.

There is both an upside and a downside to this. The upside obviously being that Stephenson plays better when he believes that he's an integral piece to the puzzle. Over the last two months, as Paul George has fallen into a dreadful shooting slump but continues to hoist up ill-advised shots under the guise of being "the star," Stephenson's play has also declined, particularly on defense. Stephenson posted an individual defensive rating of 98 prior to the All-Star break, but it has ballooned to 107 since. If George can shake his slump or be more responsible as a facilitator, Stephenson's play should return to peak form.

The downside, however, is that Stephenson isn't the player who you'd want deciding key moments against Chicago or Miami, or San Antonio or Oklahoma City or whoever the West representative in the Finals will be should Indiana advance that far. There are certain players who you'd be okay with giving them the ball and getting the hell out of their way, like LeBron, Durant, Chris Paul, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Dirk, etc, etc. Lance Stephenson is not one of those players.

This issue is unlikely to be enough of a detriment to affect this series - Indiana has a near-certainty to win the series regardless of how well Stephenson plays. But it will be important to see what trends Stephenson (and the Pacers) settle into, because the wrong trends becoming Indiana's comfort zone could cost them in future rounds.

Kyle Korver

In the grand scheme of things, nothing that Atlanta does in this series is really going to matter (more on that later). Even if by the sheer grace of God himself, Indiana wins this series (probably thanks to Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and George Hill dying in a freak gasoline fight accident while Lance Stephenson looks on in horror), Atlanta would simply be run over in the following round by whoever their opponent ends up being. 

But if you're watching for basketball's sake, watch Kyle Korver race around screens against Indiana's perimeter defense. The Pacers have an insane amount of length everywhere on their defense, but it is geared towards collapsing into the paint against drivers and then closing out on spot-up shooters if the ball kicks out. Atlanta, however, will run cleverly designed plays to get Korver open for three - misdirection pick-and-rolls with backscreens on the weakside which Korver can curl around for an open look. It's not necessarily a weakness of Indiana's defense, but it will be fascinating to watch them try to counter it.

The Case for Indiana:

They're the better team, they'll have the two best players (and four of the best five) on the court for the overwhelming majority of the series, they're better coached, they started the season 18-1 (compared to Atlanta's best 19-game run at any point of the season - a 11-8 stretch between November 20 and December 28), and they have home-court advantage.

Best-Case Scenario: They shake of the rust they've been exhibiting over the last two months (only Philadelphia - yes, ONLY Philadelphia - has a worse offense since the All-Star break) and lay the smack down against an overmatched opponent to give them some rest before an upcoming war in Round 2 against Brooklyn or Chicago. Pacers win in 4.

The Case for Atlanta:


Best-Case Scenario: Indiana inexplicably can't find ways to score against Atlanta's not-so-great defense. Meanwhile, Atlanta's not-so-great offense inexplicably finds holes in Indiana's historically great defense. Atlanta is able to sustain this for one game (probably Game 3) and half of another (Game 4). They manage to squeak out wins in both but Indiana comes back in Game 6 and embarrasses them on their home-court. Pacers win in 6.

The Pick:

Pacers in 4

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