For better or worse, the Atlanta Hawks are playoff-bound. They lead the ninth-place Knicks by two games with six to play, and the Hawks have the edge in the pertinent tiebreaker (conference record) and the easier schedule.
The bad part of this is that the Hawks, by qualifying for postseason, won’t participate in the draft lottery and will be matched against the conference’s No. 1 seed. At the moment, Miami holds first place in the East. If the Hawks get outrageously lucky, the Indiana Pacers will reclaim No. 1. Having Indiana as a Round 1 opponent would definitely qualify as better.
The Pacers have fallen apart in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a good team fall apart. They have suffered no major injuries. They have the same starting five as the team that took Miami to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals last spring. They were the NBA’s best for much of this regular season. They’re awful now.
Indiana has lost 12 of its past 19 games and seven of nine. Six of its past seven losses have come by double figures. In the span of seven days, the Pacers were beaten at home 103-77 by San Antonio and 107-88 by the Hawks. The latter loss came Sunday, and the score flattered the loser. The Hawks led by 32 points after 16 1/2 minutes, which is hard to do.
Roy Hibbert, the Pacers’ All-Star center, was benched for the second half by coach Frank Vogel, who said Hibbert looked “worn down.” This did not, however, prevent Vogel from using his other starters in the fourth quarter of a game long since lost.
For weeks, the Indianapolis Star has focused on two local issues: The strange arrest of Colts owner Jim Irsay and the bizarre collapse of the Pacers. Every time the Pacers appear to have hit bottom, they manage to reach a new new low. Hibbert has suggested that the Pacers have some “selfish dudes.” (The consensus is that Lance Stephenson is the dude in question.) The All-Star forward Paul George looks nothing like an All-Star, and it’s suggested that various off-the-court issues have been the reason.
The Hawks, who’ve won three of four since losing six in a row, have steadied with the return of Kyle Korver. They’re not a great team by any measure, but they’d be a difficult matchup for Indiana. (Lest we forget, the Hawks took the Pacers to six games in Round 1 last season.) Without Al Horford, there’s no post presence, but against Indiana that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With the 3-point-shooting Pero Antic the nominal center, the Hawks can spread the floor and make Hibbert chase somebody, and he’s too slow — and apparently too tired — to do that.
The Hawks aren’t very good defensively, but the Pacers’ offense has turned rancid. They’ve broken 100 points only once in the past 12 games, and the once — a 101-point windfall — was against Detroit, which quit trying before New Year’s. On Sunday they managed 23 points, a franchise low, in the first half. (Had the Hawks not scored a point in the second quarter, they’d still have led by 10 at halftime.)
Are the Pacers capable of passing Miami for the No. 1 seed? On paper, yes. Two of their four remaining games are against Milwaukee and Orlando, the league’s worst and third-worst teams. Of the Heat’s six games, five will be against playoff-caliber opposition. And the Pacers will win any tiebreaker, which means they need only gain one game over the final 10 days.
The Pacers and Heat will meet Friday night in Miami. The Heat will play the Hawks at Philips Arena the next night. Those two games could well settle the issue of the Hawks’ Round 1 opponent — and their chances of reaching Round 2. They’d have a real shot against reeling Indiana. They wouldn’t have much of one against LeBron.