Pacers begin title quest against Atlanta
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Indiana Pacers earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and they'll begin their crusade for an NBA title Saturday night when they welcome the Atlanta Hawks to Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Pacers held the No. 1 spot in the East for much of the regular season, but the end of the campaign didn't go as planned. Indiana went 10-13 to finish the season, but got the top seed when the Miami Heat rested some starters late in the campaign.
"I was excited that we got it. It was something we set out for," head coach Frank Vogel said prior to their season-finale. "It gives us the best chances going into the playoffs."
The Pacers lost in seven games to the Heat in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. They finished second in the NBA in opponents' scoring and first in opponents' field-goal percentage.
They also finished with the best home record at 35-6.
But the Pacers will need to improve significantly if they are going to advance in the postseason. All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert both regressed as did Lance Stephenson. But the team is built on defense and have had time to try and cure what's ailing them.
"This is the best time of the year," said Stephenson. "Every game is on TV and every game is about business. There's no joking around. Everybody is watching."
The Hawks are in the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season and needed both late-season heroics and a collapse by the New York Knicks to punch a ticket.
Under the guidance of first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks managed to tread water in an otherwise dreadful Eastern Conference and hope to move past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010-11. The Hawks have been bounced in six games in each of the last two conference quarterfinals.
They lost six in a row in late March and started to feel the heat. However, the Hawks won six of the next eight games to get back on track and a 98-85 win over the Heat on April 12 sealed the eighth spot.
"I'm happy for all the guys," Hawks guard Jeff Teague said. "We worked so hard all year. Injuries and everything that can happen to a team happened. We were able to still make it to the playoffs."
The Hawks dealt with a major loss early on when All-Star center Al Horford went down with a right pectoral injury. But Teague and Paul Millsap picked up the slack and got Atlanta the eighth seed.
Teague averaged 16.5 ppg and 6.7 apg and Vogel indicated that he was the key to stopping the Hawks.
"The whole defensive game plan is keeping (Teague) out of the paint; it's the toughest challenge we're going to have," acknowledged Vogel.
Indiana and Atlanta met in the 2012-13 playoffs and the Pacers disposed of the Hawks in six games. The Pacers and the Hawks will face each other in the postseason for a sixth time and the two sides split four regular-season meetings this season.
The Hawks trounced the Pacers in Indiana on April 6, but Indiana is 10-5 in its last 15 as the host in this series. Atlanta has won 14 of its last 16 against the Pacers at Philips Arena.
04/19 10:18:20 ET