The Hawks will take on the Pacers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs for the second consecutive season. The two teams split their four regular season matchups, each team winning one game at home and one on the road. The Hawks will look to become the first eighth seed to defeat a one seed since the 76ers beat the Bulls 4-2 in 2012.
In the two Hawks’ wins this season, the three-point shot was a big factor as they were 44% from deep (22-of-50). Atlanta’s ability to spread the floor and hit threes, particularly with their bigs able to step outside, helped to draw the Pacers’ rim defenders out of the paint, opening up opportunities at the rim.
Both of the Hawks’ wins came with Pero Antic in the starting lineup — the same lineup they will start in the playoffs — and with that lineup, Atlanta’s bigs were 9-for-18 from three-point range in those two victories. In the Hawks’ two losses, they shot 37.3% from three-point range, but with Antic out for both matchups, Atlanta’s bigs – Paul Millsap and Mike Scott – shot just 3-of-14 (21.4%) from three, which allowed the Pacers’ bigs to stay closer to the basket to cut off driving lanes and opportunities at the rim.
You can see the difference in the Hawks’ effectiveness and efficiency from the three-point line and close to the rim in their two wins over Indiana compared to their two losses.
When the Hawks’ big men can provide a threat from the perimeter, it forces Indiana to change how they defend the pick-and-roll. As you’ll see in the example, the Pacers like to have their bigs sag underneath the screen to prevent drives to the basket. Against more traditional bigs that roll to the hoop or to a mid-range jumper, this strategy also allows for a close out and contest onto the roll-man. However, with the Hawks’ bigs popping out to the three-point line, it creates enough separation from the Pacers’ bigs sagging underneath to create an open three-point shot.
When the Hawks’ bigs are able to convert these open opportunities into made three-pointers, it forces the Pacers’ bigs to defend the pick-and-roll ball-handler less aggressively to stay within range of the popping big. This opens up driving lanes for Jeff Teague and the Atlanta guards to attack the basket, as shown here.
As you see, West is quicker in bailing on Teague to cover out on Scott, allowing Jeff to drive past his defender and get into the paint where he converts on a floater and draws the foul. If the Hawks can get Scott, Millsap, and Antic going from the perimeter, they can force the Pacers to make subtle changes to their defensive strategy that will open up the normally lock-tight Indiana interior defense.
Along with the bigs’ three-point shooting, Kyle Korver‘s presence coming off of screens is also a way for the Hawks to open up the interior of the Pacers staunch defense. The Pacers have committed to taking away Korver’s open looks as much as possible — he’s still 7-for-15 from three in the three games he’s played against Indiana this season — and in doing so, they have a tendency to over play him on pindowns.
In these two examples, one on the side and one at the top of the key, the Hawks are able to get the Pacers out of position on defense by having the screener slip into open space when Indiana’s big helps too far up the court on Korver.
In the first video, Antic slips the screen and Korver is able to hit him on a quick pass to the baseline. This forces the help from the weakside onto Antic, leaving Millsap open on the cut to the rim. In the second video, Scott slips the screen as Luis Scola slides up to protect against the Korver three, leaving Scott open on the roll into the lane for the floater.
Because Korver is such a threat as a shooter, defenses over-commit to him regularly. The Hawks do a great job of creating passing options for Korver when coming off of screens should the defense commit extra defenders to him. In this instance, Korver catches the ball off a pindown, and rather than dropping it to Antic on the baseline, he hits a cutting Shelvin Mack, which forces an Indiana rotation and then Mack makes the extra pass to a wide-open Scott.
Against the Pacers — who commit heavily to protecting the paint — pace, rapid ball movement, and spacing with the threat of bigs shooting from the outside is the blueprint for creating good, high-efficiency shots. In the Hawks two victories earlier this season, they executed that plan exceptionally well. If the Hawks let the games slow down too much or their bigs are unable to capitalize on open threes, they will have a much more difficult challenge as the Pacers’ defense thrives when they can set up and use their length to disrupt passing lanes and shots at the rim.
In the two losses, the Hawks turned the ball over 40 times combined compared to 27 combined turnovers in the two victories. The Pacers have so much length all over the court with George Hill at the point, Lance Stephenson and Paul George on the wing, and David West and Roy Hibbert in the frontcourt. That length makes them extremely difficult to beat when they can stay in position to contest shots or disrupt passes. Screens and quick passing are crucial to forcing rotations by Indiana, which in turn — as shown in some of the above clips — create open looks in high-efficiency areas of the floor.
Defensively, the Hawks will be challenged by the Pacers’ size and length on the wing. DeMarre Carroll will be tasked with defending Paul George the majority of the time, and will have to be wary of more than just George’s scoring ability. George likes to put the ball on the floor and is very good at facilitating to teammates when help defenders collapse on his drives, and when he draws extra defenders he also creates offensive rebounding opportunities.
Staying between George and the basket, and being able to allow the bigs to stay attached to their man will be Carroll’s primary task. George is not a particularly efficient shooter, but he commands so much attention that he creates plenty of opportunities for his teammates as well as himself.
The Hawks were surprisingly effective this season keeping the Pacers off the offensive boards, allowing just 8.5 second chance points per game in their four meetings. Atlanta struggled at times this season against bigger opponents on the glass, but that was not an issue against Indiana despite their size advantage and the Hawks will need to continue to do this in the playoffs.
Transition defense — always a point of emphasis for Coach Bud — will have to be a priority. As mentioned earlier, turnover differential has been important for the Hawks’ success this season against the Pacers. That is made even more evident by looking at the Pacers’ points off turnovers in their wins and losses. In Indiana’s two wins, they averaged 27.5 points off of turnovers compared to just 15.5 in their losses to Atlanta. The Pacers offense in the halfcourt is not particularly efficient or prolific, but they become much more dangerous when they are able to get some easy points in transition, as evidenced by their splits against the Hawks.
The Hawks’ success against the Pacers offers at least some idea of what they have to do in this series. Obviously both teams will look at the film and make minor adjustments throughout the series — playoff basketball is unique in how much time can be devoted to game-planning for the opponent — but the basic ideas will be the same. All of the concepts that Coach Bud has preached all season — ball movement, pace, bigs spacing the floor, transition defense — will be put to the test against an excellent Pacers team, but the Hawks have shown that when they execute these concepts they have the ability to beat Indiana, at home or on the road.
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