Playoff Predictions: Pacers v. Hawks

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

A series that captures the excitement--and probably the quality--of the NCAA Tournament.

Eastern Conference:

1) Indiana Pacers v. 8) Atlanta Hawks (2-2 regular season)

I suppose I should admit straight away, in the interest of full disclosure, that there is zero chance of me watching a minute of this series unless it gets to at least a Game 6. I mean, on paper it looks gross.

More specifically, it looks like the NCAA tournament. The scrappy, three-point shooting, undersized mid-major underdogs against the giants from the basketball factory who haven't quite figured out how to play the game yet and struggle to space the floor, pass, shoot or do anything watchable, but they're athletic enough defensively and dominant on the boards so it doesn't matter.

I despise the NCAA tournament.

The Hawks, who unfortunately lost their best player in Al Horford because of a torn pectoral, stubbornly refused to miss the playoffs, even though the lottery would've been the best thing for their franchise. I think GM Danny Ferry took a lot of flak for saying the playoffs aren't important to him and they had to redouble their efforts instead of quietly fading away. Also, my conspiracy theory is that both Miami and Brooklyn tanked to them down the stretch to make sure the Knicks wouldn't sneak into the playoffs. The Nets in particular want the headlines to themselves in April. Miami meanwhile could've gotten the number one seed if they beat Atlanta, and then would've had to deal with defending Carmelo Anthony and having a guaranteed match-up with the Bulls or Nets in round two.

Anyway, out of necessity, coach Mike Budenholzer, who's something of a three-point fetishist to begin with, found a funky college mid-major style that works, with everyone in their favored five-man lineup of Pero Antic-Paul Millsap-DeMarre Carroll-Kyle Korver-Jeff Teague capable of knocking down the three. You think Roy Hibbert or even David West feels comfortable checking guys way out there? It's a legitimate problem for the Pacers, who hit their absolute nadir on April 6 at home against Atlanta, where the Hawks thumped them 55-23 in the first half, with the crowd booing the Pacers off the court.

Indy have righted themselves somewhat since then, but Hibbert is still their biggest concern. He just doesn't look right to me. I think he's playing with some kind of undisclosed injury, possibly in his ankles or feet. I haven't watched enough of him to be sure, but I think this series will tell the tale. If he can't dominate or at the very least stay on the court against the undersized Hawks, they have no chance going forward. As many problems as the Hawks figure to cause for Indy with their spread-the-floor offense, Hibbert should theoretically be able to exploit them on the other end, or at least cause rampant double-teaming. If he can't, forget it.

Budenholzer deserves kudos for discovering Antic and for developing Carroll into a useful "3-and-D" guy. Millsap might be the most underrated player in the East. I kind of feel bad for the Hawks. Had Horford and the rest of their crew been healthy all year, they could've been the third seed and at least made the Pacers and Heat work for the the top two spots. Instead, they're going down in the first round in six games, hamstrung by their short bench. There aren't many playoff teams against which Indy can claim to have a legitimate bench advantage, but all the Hawks have to rely on are the decomposing corpse of Elton Brand, the uneven Louis Williams (who has struggled to recapture his form since returning from that torn ACL), and something called "Cartier Martin."

Fun Fact: The Hawks drafted this kid Dennis Schroeder, who was dubbed "The German Rajon Rondo." I'm pretty sure Rondo never finished a season with a -16.2 net rating. Young Schroeder might want to work on that jumper in the off-season.

Prediction: Pacers in six.

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