Atlanta Hawks small forward Josh Smith (5) works against the defense of Milwaukee Bucks small forward Ersan Ilyasova in a game earlier this season. The Hawks open the playoffs today in Indiana.
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers believe they are capable of knocking off the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference since taking them to the brink last spring.
If they hope to get another shot at the defending champs, the third-seeded Pacers will have to figure out a way around the Atlanta Hawks first.
The sixth-seeded Hawks visit Indiana today for Game 1 and have the type of size and strength that could frustrate the Pacers.
The teams split four meetings in the regular season, with each holding home court.
Atlanta’s Josh Smith and Al Horford will battle with Indiana’s David West and Roy Hibbert on the inside and try to draw them away from the basket.
The Pacers are one of the most disciplined defensive teams in the league but began to show some cracks in April while dropping five of six to close out the regular season. Indiana allowed 102.1 points in its final eight games — nearly 12 points above its season average.
Atlanta (44-38) did not exactly finish with a flurry, either, losing five of their final seven to erase any chance of home-court advantage in the first round.
The Hawks went 19-22 on the road and dropped four of their final six away from Atlanta during the regular season, including a 100-94 setback at Indiana on March 25.
Smith scored 20 points, but the Hawks were outrebounded 49-38 in the loss. Smith played sparingly over the final weeks while fighting off a knee injury but looked strong when he was in the lineup and shot 55 percent from the field in the final month.
Atlanta is counting on the point guard combo of Jeff Teague and Devin Harris to give it an advantage on the perimeter. Teague averaged nine assists in April and cut his turnovers to 2.3 — the lowest of any month.
Indiana (49-32) looked like a lock for the No. 2 seed in the East before its slump coincided with the New York Knicks’ surge. Either way, the Pacers will have to make it to the Eastern Conference finals if they want to get another crack at the Heat. Indiana led the NBA in rebounding average behind Hibbert and West and was second in points allowed despite the letup late in the season.
The biggest difference between this spring and last month is the increase role of shooting guard Lance Stephenson, who has given the team a tenacious perimeter defender and a solid shooting option on the wing.
Stephenson missed the last meeting with the Hawks but collected 14 points and six rebounds in a 114-103 win against them on Feb. 5