warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

2014 NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Preview, Part 2

Law Murray |
April 19, 2014 | 9:54 a.m. PDT

Staff Writer

It's been a rough adjustment for Evan Turner, but the Pacers should roll the Hawks in Round 1. (Twitter/@Pacers)
It's been a rough adjustment for Evan Turner, but the Pacers should roll the Hawks in Round 1. (Twitter/@Pacers)
We break down each series for you, giving insight into which teams will move on into the Conference Semifinals.

(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks

The NBA Playoffs will start this weekend, and for the Eastern Conference’s top seed Indiana Pacers, it could not have started soon enough. For the eighth seed Atlanta Hawks, they didn’t even really care if they were in it or not. Many folks were hoping the East’s 1-8 matchup would be the Miami Heat and New York Knicks. A rematch of last year’s 3-6 matchup between the Pacers and Hawks will have to suffice.

The Pacers started the season better than any team in the league, jumping out to a 15-1 record at a time where the Eastern Conference was struggling to put together more than two competent teams. The good vibes in Indiana continued through the All-Star break, where they entered with a 40-12 record and the best defense in the NBA. The Pacers struggled afterwards, as they went 16-14 to close the season. That still earned them the top seed in the East and a second straight division title, but there is an identity concern here.

The Hawks were actually one of the better teams in the East for a while. Atlanta had to endure another pectoral tear to center Al Horford, but the team still had a 25-21 record on February 1. The team promptly nosedived, enduring losing streaks lasting eight, six, and six games, briefly losing their last playoff spot to New York. The Hawks got their act together though, winning six of their last eight to make it back to the playoffs for a seventh straight season, the longest streak in the East.

The Pacers and Hawks split the season series, just like last season. Each team won and lost on the other team’s floor, with the most recent game coming two weekends ago, a Hawks blowout win in Indiana that saw Pacers center Roy Hibbert benched for the second half. It may have been the nadir period in Indiana’s season, and it was definitely the moment where Atlanta pulled ahead of New York for good.

READ MORE: 2014 NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Preview, Part 1

Hawks Offense vs. Pacers Defense

Perimeter: The Hawks will live and die by the jumper, and that’s not an ideal game plan against a Pacers team that defends the three well. Hawks point guard Jeff Teague is used similar to Spurs point guard Tony Parker, aggressively driving to the basket and drawing fouls better than any player other than All-Star power forward Paul Millsap. Teague had a quiet season against the Pacers until exploding for 25 points in April on 9-of-17 shooting. Teague needs to be aggressive against Pacers point guard George Hill for the team to have a shot to win. Other than Teague, the Hawks will rely heavily on wing shooters, and shooting guard Kyle Korver will have the attention of Indiana’s defense just like last postseason. Korver missed all seven of his threes in the Pacers’ series clinching Game 6 win, so Korver will need to atone for that loss. The Hawks will also have three-point shooting center Pero Antic making Hibbert uncomfortable. Indiana is too good defensively to get shot out of the playoffs, but Atlanta will emphasize their deep attack. Advantage: Draw/Pacers

Atlanta and Indiana split the season series for the second straight year. (Twitter/@ATLHawks)
Atlanta and Indiana split the season series for the second straight year. (Twitter/@ATLHawks)
Interior: Losing Horford robbed Atlanta of a chance to have a plus frontcourt, as Millsap became an All-Star in his first season with the team. He’ll bang with power forward David West, who he struggled against the first three games of the season (6-of-31 from the field) before scoring 17 points in April on 8-of-14 from the field. Millsap will take a lot of threes, but the Hawks need Millsap to get to the line and be a consistent force. Hibbert needs to get it going. His lack of rebounding generally isn’t a surprise, but he looked like a player who collapsed under the weight of playing more minutes than ever, and now his playing time is threatened. The Hawks don’t rebound, so at the very least, Indiana shouldn’t be hurt inside too much. Advantage: Pacers

Control: While the Hawks were one of the worst teams in the NBA when it came to turning the ball over, they were an elite passing team all year. Atlanta’s ball movement allowed them to finish second to only the Spurs - which makes sense, given that new head coach Mike Budenholzer was a longtime Spurs assistant. Other than Pacers small forward Paul George, Indiana does not have players who force many turnovers. It’s not a strong point of their scheme, and so don’t expect the Hawks to feel much disruption. Atlanta has plenty of capable passers outside of Teague, and veterans Korver and Millsap both set career-highs in assists this past season. Advantage: Hawks

Hawks Defense vs. Pacers Defense

Control: One of Indiana’s problems since Hill took over as the team’s starting point guard in 2012 has been the team’s turnover rate. It’s not that Hill himself is a high-turnover player - he only averaged 1.2 turnovers a game. But he only averages 3.5 assists per game, and the playmaking duties fall to high-turnover wings such as George, Lance Stephenson and midseason acquisition Evan Turner. Atlanta does a good job of forcing turnovers, and George in particular will have to deal with the activity of small forward DeMarre Carroll. Advantage: Hawks 

Interior: Hibbert has gone in the tank, shooting 39 percent from the field post-All-Star break. That’s bad for a small guard, let alone a 7’2”, 280-pound center who isn’t known for taking a bunch of jump shots. Despite Atlanta’s unideal center situation, Hibbert struggled mightily against them all season, making 9-of-32 shots from the field in four games against the Hawks. That’s a 28 percent clip, and it’s unlikely he’ll get many chances to turn it around. That leaves West to fend for himself, and he’s certainly capable of handling Millsap and getting him into foul trouble if Millsap starts reaching too much. Considering Millsap’s importance to Atlanta’s offense, expect West’s touches to be a priority. The Hawks have enough bodies to come in and help out in Elton Brand, Mike Scott, and rookie Mike Muscala. But the quality isn’t there, and the Hawks need Millsap to stay on the floor to help rebound. Advantage: Pacers

Perimeter: Poor shooting has also been a problem for George. While George improved his ability to get to the line and had another strong season shooting the three, his field goal percentage went from 44 percent before the All-Star break to under 40 percent after. If George is focused on getting to the hole, he’ll put up numbers against the Hawks. Stephenson is a versatile player, but he was quiet against Atlanta during the season, and he and Turner both struggle with their outside shot. Backup Pacers guard C.J. Watson is a big factor here, as his shooting gives the Pacers a weapon they wouldn’t otherwise have in their second unit. The Hawks aren’t great at defending the three, but they won’t give up a lot of cheap fouls either. Indiana will need to make some shots. Advantage: Draw/Hawks

Hawks Special Teams vs. Pacers Special Teams 

Jeff Teague finished the season strong, but Atlanta will need a lot more to win the series. (Twitter/@ATLHawks)
Jeff Teague finished the season strong, but Atlanta will need a lot more to win the series. (Twitter/@ATLHawks)
The Pacers have a better chance at controlling the tempo of the series, but then again, that all depends on what happens with Hibbert. If Antic was a better player, I’d put more stock into Atlanta being able to dictate the lineups on the floor. Both teams are good from the free throw line, and neither team is particularly athletic - Paul George is an exception in this series. When it comes to depth, Atlanta has had some notable performances against Indiana’s bench this year, namely Scott. And because of the numerous injuries Atlanta has had to deal with all season, they have a better idea about the kinds of players that will be in the rotation: Shelvin Mack, Lou Williams, etc. Indiana will hope that Ian Mahinmi and Luis Scola will step up in the playoffs, and that Evan Turner and C.J. Watson can click. Advantage: Draw/Pacers

Coaching

Budenholzer looked like he was presiding over a wasted season when the Hawks kept getting into embarrassingly long losing streaks. But now that his team is in the playoffs, the rookie head coach gets to see how his system translates to the money season. In a way, he is in the same position now that Pacers head coach Frank Vogel was in three years ago. Back then, Vogel had taken over a losing Pacers team midseason, got them in the playoffs as an eight seed, and managed to not get swept by the 2010-2011 Bulls. Vogel has come under fire for how his team has spiraled out of control, but at least he has the experience of knowing his team over the last four seasons. Advantage: Draw/Pacers

Intangibles

Indiana’s intangibles are a mess right now, but it could have been worse. The playoffs gives Indiana a chance to refocus. They set a goal out to get the top seed in the playoffs. The journey became disturbingly turbulent, but they achieved their regular season goal. They have homecourt advantage, and that’s huge for a team that finished with the league’s best home record at 35-6. They now have to figure out how to stay together on this playoff run, as they have a couple of All-Stars who fell off (George, Hibbert) and a couple of 2014 free agents keeping their value in mind (Stephenson, Turner). The Hawks won’t be getting the services of Horford, but then again, the Pacers won’t have center Andrew Bynum either. The Hawks won’t be playing with any added pressure. Indiana should be comfortable, but that comfort will only last until Atlanta can bring them some adversity. Advantage: Draw/Hawks

The Pacers lost only six games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this season. (Twitter/@Pacers)
The Pacers lost only six games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this season. (Twitter/@Pacers)
Bottom Line

The Hawks should more than just be satisfied with making the playoffs. They should feel like they have a shot at pulling the rare 1-8 upset. Despite their record, the Hawks are a team with enough experience and talent to not be overwhelmed by a Pacers team that they beat twice during the season. Atlanta should be able to take advantage of a struggling Pacers offense, and this series should be compelling. Indiana still has a strong defense, and while it seems like they are vulnerable, it is hard to imagine them getting bounced in the first round. I loathe making predictions, but the Pacers should do what they did last year against Atlanta and close this out in Game 6.

(4) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards

The Chicago Bulls were looking like a weary team once again, having lost 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose to another season-ending knee injury, trading Luol Deng midseason, and fueling rumors about a future that may not have included head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards, a team that has missed the playoffs five seasons in a row, spent the entire first half of the season under .500.

John Wall came into his own this season...but will it result in a playoff series victory? (Twitter/@WashWizards)
John Wall came into his own this season...but will it result in a playoff series victory? (Twitter/@WashWizards)
Both teams shaped up, got themselves over .500, and now they will meet in the first round of the 2014 NBA playoffs. The Bulls finished with a 48-34 record and the fourth seed in the East, while the Wizards finished 44-38 and took the fifth seed. Back in 2005, the Bulls were the fourth seed and the Wizards were the fifth seed, and the result was a 4-2 series win for the Wizards, which is the only time the team has won a playoff series since 1982.

The Wizards won the season series two games to one, winning both games within the same week both in D.C. and Illinois. However, the Bulls won the most recent matchup two weekends ago, holding the Wizards to 26 first-half points on the way to a blowout win in Washington.

Wizards Offense vs. Bulls Defense

Perimeter: Point guard John Wall stayed healthy, improved his jump shot, and became an All-Star in his fourth NBA season. He and backcourt mate Bradley Beal are on the short list for best backcourts in the league, with Wall operating as a driver and Beal often launching from deep. Washington was one of only two teams to have four players make more than 100 threes during the season, and Wall (35 percent), Beal (40 percent), small forward Trevor Ariza (41 percent), and backup wing Martell Webster (39 percent) helped place the Wizards in the top-five for three-point percentage. Chicago is good at defending the three, and while Washington won’t take too many threes, they will take too many long two-pointers. The Bulls also employ one of the best young wing defenders in the league in shooting guard Jimmy Butler, and it won’t be an easy series offensively for the young Washington guards. Advantage: Bulls

Interior: The Wizards missed power forward Nene for almost 30 games, and even though he came back behind Trevor Booker on the depth chart, he still scored double figures in every game. He may be their best source for interior offense, as center Marcin Gortat will have his hands full dealing with Defensive Player of the Year candidate and All-Star center Joakim Noah. Noah anchored a Bulls defense that allowed only a 43 percent mark from the field, and Noah teamed up with reserve forward Taj Gibson to block a combined 233 shots. Nene is key for Washington, as he does an excellent job of drawing fouls for a player who doesn’t take a lot of shots. However, the Bulls are also good at keeping teams off the free throw line. Gortat and Booker are both good offensive rebounders who make a high percentage of their shots, so Noah and power forward Carlos Boozer will be challenged there. But Washington does not feature their big men too much offensively. Advantage: Bulls

Control: One of Wall’s biggest problems in his first few seasons was his high turnover rate. Wall still led the league in total turnovers for the second time in two years. However, he also led the league in total assists, and he is surrounded by decent passers in the starting lineup (Beal, Ariza) and the bench (Nene, point guard Andre Miller). The Bulls are merely average at forcing turnovers, though point guard Kirk Hinrich and Butler get their share of steals. Advantage: Draw/Wizards

Wizards Defense vs. Bulls Offense

Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson help comprise an elite defensive frontcourt. (Twitter/@Chicagobulls
Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson help comprise an elite defensive frontcourt. (Twitter/@Chicagobulls
Control: Noah led the Bulls in assists, averaging 5.4 per game from the center position while turning the ball over only 2.4 times per game. That’s the good news for Chicago. The bad news is that the team’s other players aren’t great playmakers, and the Wizards love to jump passing lanes and force turnovers. Hinrich is one of the least dynamic point guards in the league, while backup D.J. Augustin is one of the smallest. Both are at a disadvantage against Wall. Same goes for small forward Mike Dunleavy dealing with Ariza. The Wizards typically win the turnover battle, and the Bulls more often lose it. Advantage: Wizards

Interior: There is no such thing as an easy shot for the Bulls. As well as they play defensively in terms of limiting opponents chances to score, the Bulls are just as bad themselves, making an NBA-worst 43.2 percent of their field goals. Not a single player on the roster made half of their shots, and the Wizards are a top-ten defensive unit with size and nasty, especially with Nene available. Most of the Bulls’ points will come from the hard work of Noah, Boozer, and Gibson inside. But they’re not the most efficient players, and they don’t get to the free throw line much. Advantage: Wizards

Perimeter: The Bulls’ best driver may be Butler, who can’t shoot but gets to the line more than any other player on the roster. Chicago will need him to be aggressive against Beal. The other Chicago perimeter players will have their work cut out for them. Most of the shots Hinrich, Dunleavy and Augustin take are shots the Wizards defend well. It’s going to be a real chore for Chicago to score consistently. Advantage: Wizards

Wizards Special Teams vs. Bulls Special Teams 

Wall gives the Wizards a shot in the arm of tempo and athleticism that the Bulls simply won’t have. But a concern that Washington has is that they were one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the league, and none of their top big men shoot 70 percent from the line. The Bulls have no such concerns with their free throw shooters. The Bulls also give their reserves a major role off the bench. Gibson is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and the matchup between he and Nene is one to watch. Chicago needs Augustin to continue his high level of play and perhaps channel Nate Robinson’s run from last year. Advantage: Draw/Bulls

Coaching

This may be the biggest mismatch in the series. Even though Thibodeau’s teams have disappointed in the playoffs for one reason or another, he has built up a solid system with his team over the last four seasons. Thibodeau’s defense will be a struggle for Wizards head coach Randy Wittman to overcome in his first playoff appearance. Wittman has done well to push the right motivational buttons and keep Washington’s defense a priority. However, the Wizards’ inconsistent offense threatens to hold the team back. Advantage: Bulls

Intangibles

The Wizards had one of the better road records among Eastern Conference teams at 22-19. However, they also had the worst home record among playoff teams at 22-19. They have shown that they are capable of winning in Chicago, but also losing at home to the Bulls as well. The Bulls are hot, and they know what kind of team they are. They’re no longer the team waiting on Derrick Rose. This is Joakim Noah’s team, and they established last postseason that they have the grind mentality to overcome their putrid offense and win a playoff series. Washington has their hands full playing a team that has made the playoffs six years in a row. And for what it’s worth, no team with Andre Miller on it has advanced past the first round of the playoffs (0-9). Advantage: Bulls

Jimmy Butler is one of many Bulls who struggle to score, but plays consistent defense. (Twitter/@Chicagobulls)
Jimmy Butler is one of many Bulls who struggle to score, but plays consistent defense. (Twitter/@Chicagobulls)

Bottom Line

Since the NBA went to a 16-team format in the postseason, the 5th seed has won half of the time. One of those times included the aforementioned 2005 matchup between these two teams. There hasn’t been a 4-5 sweep since the 2007 NBA playoffs, when the 5th seed Bulls swept the defending champion Miami Heat. In other words, this is a complete tossup. Washington has the best talent in the series in Wall, and his first foray into the playoffs isn’t something the Bulls have seen since they had to check Gilbert Arenas nine years ago. For all of the talk about Chicago’s defense, it is Washington’s that can put the Bulls on the brink of elimination. But Chicago has the right stuff in the locker room, on the sideline, and off the bench. This may have to go seven games, and it would be hard to pick against Chicago in that situation.

Law Murray is an NBA and NFL journalist. For more on the NBA Playoffs, see his 2014 NBA Bandwagon Report and reach him on Twitter at @1maddskillz.



 

Buzz

Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.

 
ntrandomness