The Pacers ended up with the best record in the Eastern Conference and the number one seed that goes along with it, but the team struggled mightily over the second half of the season, and limped to the finish line.
The playoffs presented a chance for Indiana to wipe the slate clean, and try to get right against a Hawks team that was eight games under .500 on the season.
After one game, things continue to be troublesome for the Pacers. Behind 28 points from Jeff Teague and 25 from Paul Millsap, the Hawks took Game 1 by a final of 101-93, in a game where Atlanta led by as many as 20 points.
Millsap and Pero Antic present matchup problems for the Pacers bigs, and for Roy Hibbert especially. His numbers on the season against Atlanta are substandard, and things were no different in this one. Hibbert managed just eight points and eight rebounds on 4-of-9 shooting, with no blocked shots while committing five turnovers. If things weren’t bad enough from a production standpoint, he even had his shot blocked by Kyle Korver — twice.
What has to be maddening for Pacers fans is the fact that the Hawks finished the season second in the league in three-point attempts at over 25 per game, yet Indiana did nothing strategically on the defensive end to make those shots more difficult to take. If you trust Hibbert as your rim protector (and you should), then the plan should be to overplay the perimeter and chase the Hawks off the three-point line, forcing them into tougher mid-range looks or to attack the normally stout defense of Hibbert inside.
Instead, the Hawks got all the threes they wanted, launching 30 in the victory. And when they did choose to go into the lane, Teague was able to get to the basket seemingly at will, with the rotations coming late or not at all from the Pacer defenders.
Indiana has always won with defense — they rank first in the league in that category on the season (per 100 possessions), but just 22nd on the offensive end of the floor. Still, the team is going to need to find a way to share the ball and create better open looks to get capable scorers like Paul George and David West the ball in position to produce. Those two combined for just 32 points on 10-of-28 shooting, which won’t be nearly enough to get it done in this series.
Lance Stephenson was the only bright spot offensively, but isolated too much to the detriment of the offense overall. He did so out of necessity because not much else was working, but Indiana needs to use Stephenson’s creativity to try to involve his teammates.
The adjustments that need to be made should be crystal clear to Frank Vogel and his staff. Whether or not the Pacers can implement them remains to be seen, and for a Hawks team that didn’t seem all that concerned with even getting to the postseason, they sure looked good in making a Game 1 statement.