The season in the Eastern Conference began with two superpowers and a bunch of other teams whose absolute playoff ceiling seemed to be hosting, and probably losing, a Game 6 against the Bulls or Heat.
But Miami’s recent listless play and the endless series of nagging injuries to Derrick Rose (and to a lesser extent, Luol Deng) have thrown a monkey wrench into that assumed scenario, and the discussion of which Eastern Conference teams might break up Miami-Chicago party has focused on the surging Celtics and Knicks.
It has not focused on two other teams quietly peaking at the right time: Indiana and Atlanta, the latter a conference semifinalist for three straight seasons and the other a team that has proven it can at least irritate the East’s elite. The Pacers are 9-1 in their last 10 games and 15-5 in their last 20, a stretch in which they have beaten Miami, Oklahoma City and New York (but also lost both games of a home-and-home to the Knicks).
The Hawks haven’t been quite as exciting, at “just” 13-7 in their last 20 games, but both teams share one general trend: They started the year as defense-first teams, surviving despite shaky offenses, and they are ending it by scoring like gangbusters. The Hawks in their last 20 games have scored 106 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank third overall; for the season, they rank just 16th, averaging 101.8 points per 100 possessions.
The Pacers have been even better. They have scored 107.8 points per 100 possessions in their last 20 games, a scoring rate that would lead the league over the full season. They’ve crept all the way to 10th in the overall points per possession rankings, becoming one of just four teams — along with the Bulls, Thunder and Heat — to rank among the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession. You want to suss out the real title contenders? Look for teams that play top-shelf ball on both ends of the floor.
Scoring has surged leaguewide in the last month or so, but the Hawks and Pacers have outpaced the league significantly. This trend would seem to mark each team as at least intriguing, and at best legitimately dangerous — especially if Al Horford, cleared for contact recently, returns as something resembling himself in time for the postseason.
The question, then, becomes: Do you believe in these scoring turnarounds? There is no certain way to answer that question in dealing with small sample sizes, but I’m more inclined to look at the Pacers as a legitimate threat for one reason: Atlanta’s offense has consistently and completely fallen apart against good defenses, and that has not changed in this hot 20-game stretch — a stretch in which Atlanta has played a mostly easy schedule.
For the full season, Atlanta has averaged 94.1 points per 100 possessions against the league’s top dozen defenses (based on current rankings) and 106.8 points per 100 possessions against everyone else, according to splits at NBA.com’s proprietary database. Another way to put that: Against good defenses, Atlanta has scored at a rate just above that of the Bobcats, and against everyone else, they’ve played like the second- or third-best offense in the league.
It’s impossible to say how much of an outlier that kind of gap is without tabulating it for all 30 teams, but I suspect it’s a pretty big outlier. Every team obviously plays better against bad teams than great ones, but this is a gigantic split, and one that suggests Atlanta just can’t score enough to realistically beat a good team four times in seven tries — at least without Horford to provide more punch.
Only six of Atlanta’s most recent 20 games have come against teams that rank even in the top half of the league’s points allowed per possession list, and Atlanta has put up Bobcats-level scoring rates, or worse, in four of those games — two losses to Boston, and one loss each to the Clippers and Bulls. That leaves two decent scoring games against good defenses, and one of those came last Friday against a Magic team missing Dwight Howard.
In other words: Be skeptical about Atlanta, despite their solid defense and improved offense. The Hawks have a record of slowing the pace, taking care of the ball and being a pesky post-season out, and a real jump in scoring could take them to another level. Shifting Joe Johnson to small forward in a Jeff Teague/Kirk Hinrich/Johnson/Josh Smith/Zaza Pachulia starting lineup, with Marvin Williams coming off the bench, has loosened things a bit, but the numbers suggest such loosening has not yet applied against good teams. That could change.
Again, we’re dealing with small sample sizes. Teague has improved (though not as much as folks would like), Pachulia has held the fort at center, Smith and Johnson are doing their thing and the bench seems to provide at least one or two solid performances each night. But the Hawks reach another level with Horford’s passing and shooting touch, and they need to reach that level in order to seriously compete with even a depleted Chicago team.
The Pacers offer a more encouraging picture. For the full season, they’ve averaged about 99.2 points per 100 possessions against those top dozen defenses and about 106.8 against everyone else. There’s still a gap there, obviously, but I’d suspect it’s a more typical gap than the chasm the Hawks show. That 99.2 scoring rate would rank about 24th overall, and the difference between 24th and league average is a lot smaller than the difference between 24th and the Bobcats.
Indiana’s last 20 games have included very good scoring outputs against New York, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Miami, San Antonio and the Clippers. Leandro Barbosa has added a pinch of dynamism and guile, Danny Granger’s shooting has stabilized and the Pacers continue to gobble up offensive rebounds and free throws at rates few teams can match. I see tweets every day from fans in Orlando, Atlanta and Boston wondering how their teams might be able to draw the Pacers in the first round, and while the fear in Atlanta and Orlando of Boston’s ferocious defense is justified, looking at the Pacers as a relative patsy seems at least a month outdated.
Neither of these teams is likely to topple Chicago or Miami, and you could argue neither has the upside of a fully functioning New York or Boston team; the Celtics have been playing terrifying defense for a month now, and the Knicks, despite never-ending drama and roster upheaval, have a point differential just about equivalent to those of the Pacers and Hawks. At this point, we’re only looking for teams that might make the conference semifinals interesting, and the big picture suggests the Pacers are more likely to pull the trick than the surface-hot Hawks.