Culture of Hoops

Are the Atlanta Hawks the biggest surprise of the 2014 NBA playoffs?

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

The first-round series of the 2014 NBA playoffs are all about surprises. Each team that entered their series as the favorite, apart from the Miami Heat, has lost at home. One of the biggest surprises, arguably the biggest one in the NBA this postseason, came in the series between the Atlanta Hawks and the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers finished the regular season at the top of the Eastern Conference while the Hawks just barely clinched their playoff berth. However, after five games, the Indiana Pacers are now behind three games to two and the next game will take place in Atlanta. It will be a huge surprise to see the Indiana Pacers exiting the 2014 NBA playoffs from the first round, but hey, aren’t you accustomed to big surprises in the league already?

Some might accuse bad luck, Frank Vogel’s strategy, the lack of offensive solutions, or you name it. The truth is that although the Pacers appeared to be invincible earlier in the season, during the last month of the regular season they showed some real signs of struggle. They couldn’t find an easy basket, Roy Hibbert just couldn’t contribute on a consistent basis, and Paul George reminded no one of the dominant superstar he was earlier in the season or during the 2013 playoffs. In short, the Pacers didn’t look capable of making it to the top level. That hasn’t changed.

But we have to give credit to the Atlanta Hawks, a team that lost its starting center and saw its playoff hopes get haunted. They now stand just one game away from the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Of course, some might state that the Hawks are simply lucky. After all, up to now they have followed an unconventional style of play, shooting a bunch of threes and taking risks on defense. But this is exactly why they have found success; head coach Mike Budenholzer deserves tons of credit.

In order to beat a team as good as the Indiana Pacers, who have one of the best defenses in the entire NBA (not to mention their fair share of skilled offensive players), you have to be different. You have to risk. Mike Budenholzer took the risk and up to this point he and the Hawks have been rewarded. Yes, the Atlanta Hawks are attempting an insane amount of three-pointers. And yes, their shooting percentage for the series is relatively high. Nonetheless, in this series, against this opponent, that’s the way the team has to play.

A little luck doesn’t hurt, either: I hope you saw Mike Scott hitting 5 of 5 threes in a single quarter. But when you play against a team featuring a giant in Roy Hibbert, a former All-Star power forward in David West, another seven-footer in Ian Mahinmi, and a former star in Luis Scola, all in the frontcourt, wouldn’t you just be banging your head against the wall if you tried to penetrate and attack from inside?

Mike Budenholzer spotted the potential his Atlanta Hawks team had and he set up his team in a way it can smash the Indiana Pacers. The Hawks were lucky to hit that many threes, some of them under pressure or off-balance, but at the end of the day, that’s the only way they’re going to eliminate Indiana.

Of course, the Hawks-Pacers series is far from done. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Indiana Pacers turn things around, winning Game 6 in Atlanta and then heading back to Indiana to clinch the ticket to the next round in Game 7. Nevertheless, up to this point and after yesterday’s blowout loss—it was a blowout even if the final scoring margin was just 10 points—the Atlanta Hawks have slapped the Pacers in the face. And yes they can be characterized as the biggest surprise of the NBA up to this point. Will this surprise be even bigger if they advance to the next round? No doubt. Will their success be forgotten if the Pacers become the ones to close out the series? Probably. But there is nothing that can take away their success.

The Pacers are struggling to keep up with the Hawks’ ability to score from the perimeter. David West and Roy Hibbert are not used to defending their men in the three-point arc. But will this be the case when the Hawks meet another team in the next round?

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