Like any 1-8 matchup, the series between the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks is an example of two teams in totally different stages of development. The Pacers were built to be a title contender, and started the season looking like one. They collapsed down the stretch, but still managed to clinch the top spot. Head coach Frank Vogel has built one of the best defenses the NBA has ever seen, and regardless of the offensive slippage, he deserves credit for that. A huge part of it is simply having Paul George and Roy Hibbert on the roster, but Vogel and his staff have taught them how to be the best defenders they can be and designed a system that makes opposing players as uncomfortable as possible.
Atlanta wasn't supposed to be here. Not after losing Al Horford in late December, anyway. The Hawks were in a transitional phase even with Horford, but the brilliance of Paul Millsap, improvement of Jeff Teague and general ineptitude of the East has resulted in a playoff berth. Head coach Mike Budenholzer won't get any mentions for Coach of the Year because of his team's sub-.500 record, but he's done a hell of a job in a difficult situation. Budenholzer, who spent 19 years in the San Antonio Spurs organization before coming to Atlanta this season, wanted the team to look like the Spurs. And the Hawks do, sort of. They're essentially an aggressively average version of San Antonio; while the Spurs are excellent on both ends of the floor, Atlanta is merely competent at everything. That's just personnel.
The contrast in these teams' regular-season narratives is glaring. Indiana earned all sorts of hype and praise for its strong start, but fell apart after some adversity. Whether it was wear and tear from two seasons of huge minutes for the starting unit, an inability to handle success or a chemistry problem after the trade that sent Danny Granger away, the Pacers admitted they splintered. If Vogel is going to get any criticism, it's for that. The Hawks, on the other hand, weathered all sorts of storms. They adjusted to a new offensive system and defensive principles at the start of the season, and reoriented midstream when Paul Millsap had to become the No. 1 option. They haven't had Lou Williams at 100 percent all year. They played far and away their best defense of the season in April, and under Budenholzer, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver have never looked better.
Looking at the players at each coach's disposal, it's easy to say that there's no way Atlanta should be a better offensive team than Indiana. There's something to be said for picking an identity and sticking to it, though. The Pacers are committed to playing a slow, physical style and winning defensively. They'd like to be much, much better at scoring, but they're counting on getting enough stops that it won't matter. The Hawks don't have the luxury of elite defensive players, but they somehow make it work as a team. If their sweet-shooting big men -- Millsap and Pero Antic -- can stretch Indiana's defense out and make the Pacers pay for having the plodding Hibbert on the court, Indiana could be in trouble.
Atlanta defeated the Pacers by 19 the last time they met. That was the game in which Hibbert played only nine minutes, and zero in the second half. The Hawks led 55-23 -- not a typo -- at halftime. Antic, a 6'11, 260-pound three-point specialist, shot 7-for-8 from the field and 3-for-4 from behind the arc. He is the worst kind of matchup for Hibbert. No one should put too much weight on this one game, but Vogel will need to be creative. It's harder to funnel everyone to Hibbert when his man is always drifting to the three-point line.
While Budenholzer has had a nice, if under-appreciated first season in Atlanta, he's really going to be judged on how the team progresses next season and beyond. For Vogel, there's a lot more pressure, but swiftly disposing of the Hawks would be big for his team's confidence as it tries to make it to the Miami series that has been talked about all year.