The Pacers bring a style of play on both sides of the court that is reminiscent of the late 90s NBA: bruising and powerful basketball that isn’t necessarily easy on the eyes.
On the other hand, the Hawks have spent the past few seasons floating in no man’s land — not enough talent to compete for a title, but good enough to make the playoffs. It’s the same story this season for Atlanta and when you throw in their inconsistent crowds and Indiana’s small market, you get a match-up that the big boy networks aren’t exactly lining up to air.
With that being said, the series must go on and the basketball purists will be thankful for that, as Indiana also features one of the best defenses in the entire league.
The Pacers finished the season tops in the NBA in defensive efficiency and possess multiple athletic, long defenders. Part of Indiana’s success defensively comes from forcing their opponents into an abundance of mid-range looks, especially of the contested type, as they the led the league in opponents shots from that area.
This type of defensive strategy employed by Indiana is potentially both positive and negative for the Hawks. Effective mid-range shooting teams — Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and the Golden State Warriors to name a few — gave the Pacers issues during the regular season. Al Horford, Atlanta’s versatile center, works best around the elbows and is a fantastic jump-shooting big.
Expect to see Horford operating around the free-throw line, whether it’s shooting, facilitating, or running dribble hand-offs for the Hawks’ guards.
On the other hand, Atlanta also has Josh Smith. Smoove, as he’s known around the league, is headed towards a summer where he’ll be one of the more prominent free agents available. What Smith brings to the table — incredible athleticism and versatility at the power forward position — can be taken away from his frustrating shot selection.
Yes, you guessed it, Smoove can become infatuated with the mid-range jumper, despite connecting on just 30.5 percent of those shots this season.
This series’ X-Factor could very well be Indiana’s offense. Despite their late-seasons inconsistencies in the win-loss column, the Pacers flashed improvements scoring the basketball. They finished the regular season ranked 19th in offensive efficiency, as the team made a more concerted effort to get out in transition more often and feature more fluid ball movement.
Frank Vogel, Indiana’s head coach, describes the team’s offense as a “power-post” scheme. “We’re about offensive physicality. Smash-mouth basketball,” Vogel recently told Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe.
This type of style isn’t common in today’s NBA. While most offenses use the pick-and-roll to create drives to the rim, the Pacers set screens to aid getting the ball into Roy Hibbert and David West in the post. If they aren’t dumping the ball inside, they are running their best wing player, Paul George, through multiple forms of off-ball action: pin-downs, baseline screens, and cutting off the team’s bigs.
Atlanta, a team that could very well look to perform a roster makeover this off-season, was able to split the season series with favored Indiana. However, Lou Williams was able to suit up in both of the Hawks’ victories over the Pacers, but won’t be around this time due to a season-ending injury suffered earlier this year. Williams’ ability to play both passer and scorer for the Hawks will surely be missed, especially against an Indiana team that can struggle versus creative point guards.
In the end, Indiana’s superior talent and powerful play should wear down a Hawks franchise that is probably headed towards a new era come this summer.
Prediction: Pacers in five.
Brandon Curry is an NBA writer for Rant Sports. Follow Brandon on Twitter @ByBrandonCurry