INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Pacers believe things have changed.
Instead of chasing the top seed in the Eastern Conference, all they have to do is protect their home court. Instead of pressing, they’ve been joking around. And instead of trying debating what went wrong over the second half of the season, the Pacers will finally get a chance to start over when the playoffs open this weekend.
“I think we’re a confident group,” coach Frank Vogel said Friday. “We all know we’ve struggled a little, but we’re excited about the playoffs and we’re excited to get started.”
Pacers fans are anxious to see if anything really will be different when the Pacers host Game 1 against Atlanta on Saturday.
Over the season’s first half, the top-seeded Pacers went 33-7. Over the second half, they were mostly mediocre and out of sync in going 23-19. But Indiana (56-26) did build a little momentum by winning its last two for its first two-game winning streak in a month.
The key to regaining their early-season form will be getting All-Star center Roy Hibbert back on track. He is shooting just 23.5 percent in April, is 1 of 16 from the field over the last two games and has averaged 3.2 rebounds over the last 13.
To advance, Indiana knows Hibbert must revert to last season’s playoff form when he averaged 17.0 points and 9.9 rebounds and helped lead the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals. Hibbert insists he will be that guy when this best-of-seven starts.
“I’ve been doing this for six years now and it’s playoff time,” Hibbert said, wiping his brow after practice. “I’m ready to roll.”
The eighth-seeded Hawks (38-44) don’t intend to make things easy on Hibbert and the Pacers as they try to steal one of the first two games in Indy.
“They have a lot of length down low, so you have to be able to shoot,” said Kyle Korver, a longtime problem for the Pacers. “If you don’t knock down shots, you’re not going to beat this team.”
Here are five more things to watch as the series begins:
MISMATCH: The Pacers prefer overpowering opponents with their size inside. Atlanta, on the other hand, can put all five starters on the 3-point line, pulling Hibbert and David West away from the rim. Atlanta needs to win this battle to pull the upset.
OFFENSE VS. DEFENSE: Atlanta prefers turning up the tempo so its six double-digit scorers can take control. Indiana, meanwhile, has been built around a stingy defense. This could be the most telling battle in the entire series.
HOMETOWN RIVALS: The next best head-to-head matchup features two Indianapolis natives, George Hill vs. Jeff Teague. The two have been playing against one another for years, and now they’ll showcase their rivalry on the NBA’s big stage. Two weeks ago, Teague torched the Pacers for 25 points. Hill’s job is to keep him out of the paint and slow him down. But Hill also needs to be more aggressive offensively after taking just eight shots over the last three games.
BENCH PLAY: Indiana rebuilt its bench during the offseason and tinkered with it again in February, all in an effort to chase an NBA title. It’s time to find out if Larry Bird’s moves will work. Over the past week, the backups have played more minutes and built confidence, both of which could help Indiana in the playoffs.
HOME, SWEET, HOME: Indiana got exactly what it wanted out of the regular season: A second straight Central Division title and the No. 1 seed in the East. Now the Pacers must cash in. At 35-6, Indiana was the best home team in the league this season but its two worst home losses of the season (to San Antonio and, yes, Atlanta) weren’t that long ago. David West said Friday that the Pacers need to win Game 1 to reassert their home-court advantage.