It's not to say the Atlanta Hawks won't give it a valiant fight, but winning their first-round series matchup against the Indiana Pacers is a tall order to complete. Both squads have played below their potential heading into the playoffs -- Atlanta perhaps by way of the tank -- and neither teams' style really screams beautiful basketball.
Across the board, experts realize it might be an ugly series of two teams that truly match up quite well with one another. Al Horford and Roy Hibbert will go at it in the paint for two physical front lines, and Josh Smith and Paul George are two of the more versatile forwards in the league.
In the end, however, it's hard to dismiss that the Pacers' defense won't get the best of an Atlanta team who doesn't have a firm grasp on its offensive identity.
Matt Moore of CBS Sports questions why Atlanta tanked to fall in the Eastern Conference standings -- sure, playing the Heat in the second round isn't the best idea, but Indiana is no slouch. Moore believes Indiana will take this one in five games.
Over at Yahoo! Sports' Ball Don't Lie blog, Dan Devine, Kelly Dwyer and Eric Freeman all believe the Pacers will advance to the second round as well. The Pacers defense is stout, the offense is better than most people believe and Indiana simply has more important bodies -- Lance Stephenson, particularly -- that could swing the matchup in its favor. Dwyer and Devine have the Pacers winning in six games, while Freeman thinks this series will last only five.
USA Today's Adi Joseph and Sports Illustrated's Paul Forrester see the Hawks being quite capable of fighting for a win here or there. Joseph points out that the additions of Kyle Korver and John Jenkins gives the Hawks some shooting ability to hang with Indiana, and Forrester sums it up quite well, saying Atlanta's talent always leads a decent enough playoff team. Nevertheless, Forrester has Indiana winning in six, and Joseph only gives Larry Drew's Hawks five games of life.
Q&A with Kris Willis of Peachtree Hoops
At a glance, it appears Atlanta matches up well with the Pacers. What must they do to pull off an upset in this series?
Rebounding has been an issue for the Hawks in many of their losses so they will want to at the very least play even on the boards against the Pacers. Offensively Atlanta moves the ball well enough to give Indiana some problems but the Hawks must bring it every night on the defensive end of the floor to have a chance. Often we saw lapses, particularly during the second half of the season, where the Hawks failed to bring a consistent defensive effort. There won't be any room for a lapse during this series.
Which Hawks player has to show up to get the best of Indiana?
Indiana impresses me so much that I am inclined to answer all of the Hawks need to show up but I will take the easy way out and center on Al Horford. Many times we have seen Horford struggle against bigger players and he is sure to find himself matched up against Roy Hibbert many times during this series. He possesses enough of a perimeter game to help pull Hibbert away from the basket but Horford being aggressive early will be a big key for the Hawks.
What's your final prediction?
This is really a tough Hawks team to read. They have shown that they can play with anyone but have also shown the ability to check out and lose games at inopportune times. I almost feel like they will have to play a flawless series to win which seems like a daunting task since consistency hasn't been one of their strong points. With that said for some reason I still believe and I am going to take the Hawks in seven in the upset special of the first round.
Q&A with Nathan Samples of Indy Cornrows
What's the one thing that must go right for Indiana to be in good shape against Atlanta for this series?
The Pacers will need to make a statement in Game 1. It's easy to get swept up in a "one game at a time" mantra, but Indiana's lack of focus that led to a 1-5 conclusion to the regular season, while trailing by at least 20 in each game, has the potential to bleed over into the postseason if there isn't a renewed sense of urgency and defensive identity in the first game. It's no sure thing right now what the Pacers will look like when they take on the floor on Sunday, and that one game could be the difference between a lengthy postseason run and a quick first round exit.
Which player, from either team, is the X-factor in this series?
Roy Hibbert. Hibbert sat in with the Pacers television broadcast crew in last night's season finale for a short stretch, saying he would be excited about playing against Al Horford because Horford presents challenges for Hibbert in his ability to hit jumpers that Hibbert wants to overcome. If Hibbert can not only slow down Horford's effectiveness outside without forcing Frank Vogel to switch the matchups, but continue his impressive offensive play, the Hawks will have no one to limit or counterattack the big man.
What's your final prediction?
While there may be some issues early in the series that could cause the Pacers to slip up and lose one of the first two games at home, Indiana will offer too many challenges for Atlanta as the series progresses, winning it 4-2.