The short answer: Yes, the Atlanta Hawks have a chance. The Indiana Pacers spent the regular season’s final weeks looking like a team in search of a place to fall down, but they reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the NBA East at the end — over Miami, which was playing badly itself — and now must face a team they don’t like facing.
The Hawks enter the playoffs with the worst record of any qualifier, but their history against the Pacers — they took them to six games last season and split four regular-season games this time, the most recent of which came 12 days ago in Indianapolis and saw the visiting team lead by 32 at the half — suggests they could make this a real series. The Hawks nearly fell into the lottery with their post-January performance, but they were still better down the stretch than Indiana, which was 10-13 over the final six weeks.
Stylistically, this is a much better match for the Hawks than the Heat would have been. Miami doesn’t really have a center. The Pacers have Roy Hibbert, who’s good when he’s allowed to stand in the lane and block shots but ineffective when asked to chase someone to the perimeter. Believe it or not, the absence of Al Horford could actually help the Hawks. Horford can shoot jumpers but not 3-pointers; 3-pointers are pretty much all Pero Antic, his replacement, tries. In the two games Antic has played against Indiana, the Hawks are 2-0 and Antic has scored 34 points.
It was in the Indy blowout earlier this month that Pacers coach Frank Vogel benched Hibbert for the second half, saying he looked tired. The same could be said for the rest of the first five. Indiana’s starters have played more minutes as a unit than any other NBA starting five, and none of the Pacers has looked as good over the season’s second half as the first. This is not some armor-plated No. 1 seed. This is a flawed team with obvious holes. (For one thing, it has a terrible bench.)
The Hawks won 18 fewer games than the Pacers, but strange things can happen in the postseason. A 37-win bunch of Hawks took the 66-win Celtics to a Game 7 in 2008, and I can envision something similar happening now. I think these Hawks can force a Game 7, and I think this team — unlike the callow crew of 2008 — would have a real shot at stealing a Game 7 on the road.
Lo and behold … : The Hawks need Indiana to be the No. 1 seed.