(Sports Network) - They're long, strong and have a chip on their shoulder entering the 2012-13 Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
The Indiana Pacers, seeded third for a second straight year, will get the first round started against the sixth-seeded Atlanta Hawks. Indiana split the regular season series with Atlanta, 2-2, and the two teams have squared off four times in the postseason.
The Pacers enjoyed one of their best seasons in almost 10 years and durability was the key. Eight players competed in 70-plus games for a Pacers team that captured the first Central Division title since 2003-04, when Indiana went 61-21 and reached the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pacers, who have reached the postseason in three straight seasons, faced a tough Detroit Pistons in the conference finals then and hope to leave their own mark this time around.
"The postseason is intense. You have to be ready, every possession matters, details matter. You can't make the same mistakes," Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. "It's gonna be fun but at the same time a lot of blood, sweat and tears go into it. I don't want to go home and be watching somebody else compete for a championship."
Indiana defeated Orlando in five games in last season's quarterfinals, but was bounced from the competition in six games in the semis to eventual-champion Miami. The Pacers, though, have that look and desire to make this year's run last and will do it with All-Star Paul George, Hibbert, David West, George Hill and a cast of reserves worthy of adulation.
Coach Frank Vogel deserves some credit, too. Even though the Pacers lost five of their last six games to close out the regular season, Vogel will have his team ready for the Hawks.
"I think that Frank is going to do a great job of having a master plan for this team and all we have to do is go execute the plan and hopefully come out in the series," Pacers reserve guard Gerald Green said.
Pacers reserve forward Tyler Hansbrough put his spin on how different the playoffs are to the regular season.
"Playoffs are different. Playoff experience is rare," Hansbrough said. "It's something you kinda have to be around and be involved in to kind of know what it's like. It takes a while to get adjusted. Playoff games are very different than a regular season game; the atmosphere, the intensity, everything, the physical play."
For the Pacers' sake, adjusting to the glamour that is the NBA playoffs must come sooner rather than later.
The Hawks know they will be going up against a Pacers team that finished second in opponents' scoring at 90.7 ppg. The Hawks averaged 98.0 ppg on offense and are in the postseason for a sixth straight year.
Atlanta lost in six games to the Boston Celtics in last year's conference quarterfinals and, like Indiana, closed out the regular season on a sour note, losing five of seven games. Luckily for the Hawks, the Eastern Conference was so bad they were able to clinch a playoff berth.
Former Hawks great Dominique Wilkins talked about Atlanta's matchup.
"Among being healthy, you want to go into Indiana with a physical attitude because they're (Pacers) going to play you very physical," Wilkins said. "You gotta win possessions, you gotta take care of the ball. You can't turn the ball over against a team like this and you have to have great ball movement."
Wilkins feels the Hawks have a "major advantage" up front with the guard position, in particular Jeff Teague. Teague is a quick player who finished third on the team in scoring with 14.6 ppg and first with 7.2 assists. But most of the scoring load will rest upon the broad shoulders of Josh Smith and Al Horford. Rumored to be dealt at the trade deadline, Smith stuck around and scored a team-high 17.5 ppg.
Horford was second with 17.4 ppg and first in rebounds (10.2 rpg). Horford matches up well with Hibbert, who said he will try to move around more outside of the paint because of how hard the Hawks play down low.
BACKCOURT: Teague registered 10 20-point/10-assist games this season and is one of three Atlanta players to have that many in a campaign, joining Pete Maravich and Eddie Johnson. Teague dished out 579 assists in 2012-13, so it's quite evident he will be distributing the ball to his teammates often. He is also deadly from the free-throw line and made 88.1 percent of his foul shots this season. Teague is joined in the backcourt by Devin Harris, a dual threat at both guard positions. Harris' stock has dropped in recent years, but he can still handle the pressure. He posted 9.9 points, 3.4 assists, 2.0 rebounds and 1.1 steals, and the Hawks are 24-10 when he starts. As for Indiana, Hill will run the point and, unlike Teague, has more weapons to feed. Hill was third on the Pacers with 14.2 ppg. Lance Stephenson is the other guard and doesn't bring much scoring wise.
FRONTCOURT: The frontcourt is where this playoff series will be won. George, Hibbert and West are all rangy players, while Hibbert and West bring the size and bulk. Hibbert transformed himself into one of the top centers in the East and averaged 11.9 points and a team-high 8.3 rebounds. Hibbert grabbed 10 or more boards eight times in his last 11 games of the regular season. The only flaw for Hibbert is that he will sit against pick-and-roll teams due to the lack of speed. Hibbert, though, is a monster on the offensive glass. George was Indiana's lone All-Star and finished with career highs in points (17.4), rebounds (7.6) and assists (4.1). West is the veteran of the bunch and ended the season on a hot streak, scoring 12-plus points in seven straight. The Pacers are too big for Atlanta's frontcourt of Horford, Smith and Kyle Korver. Korver sometimes will sit in favor of Johan Petro or Anthony Tolliver, but his 3-point prowess comes in handy. Korver finished the regular season with a streak of 73 consecutive games with at least one made 3-pointer. Smith is a jack of all trades both offensively and defensively, while Horford gives the Hawks their best option inside.
BENCH: Had first-year Hawk Lou Williams stayed healthy (torn knee ligament), he would have improved the team's chances in winning this series. However, that will not be the case when Petro, DeShawn Stevenson, Ivan Johnson and defensive stopper Dahntay Jones are your top reserves. Rookies John Jenkins and Mike Scott each had 20 points off the bench earlier this month at San Antonio. Not that Indiana's reserves are much better, they still contribute more than Atlanta's. Starter Danny Granger was coming off the bench after knee surgery, but has since been shut down for the season. That hurts. But Hansbrough, Green and defensive stalwart Sam Young fill in nicely for Indy.
COACHING: Hawks coach Larry Drew has guided his team to the playoffs in his three years at the helm. The Hawks have overcome injuries at various times in a season under Drew, whose perseverance and patience with players seems to pay off when it counts. Drew's team fell two games shy of the East finals a year ago and he hopes to improve an 8-10 record in the postseason with Atlanta. Vogel doesn't have as much head coaching experience as Drew, but does have the better team in this playoff matchup. The players are confident in Vogel's system and he took over for Jim O'Brien, guiding the Pacers to a 20-18 record and their first playoff berth in four seasons two years ago.
PREDICTION: Hibbert said blood, sweat and tears are needed in the playoffs and plenty of it will be spilled in this series. Maybe not so much blood, but it will be pumping furiously in the six games it will take Indiana to move on. You have to appreciate Indiana's size and strength in this one. To be courteous toward the Hawks, Smith and Horford will show their value and make it a two-man show for Atlanta. Even if the Hawks would advance, which they won't, they will bumped out of the semis. Indiana, however, has a real shot at reaching and winning the conference finals.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: PACERS in 6