Front-Line Battle Will Decide Atlanta Hawks vs. Indiana Pacers Series

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 21, 2013

If you made it through Game 1 of the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers matchup, I commend you. Not only did you survive what many still consider to be a boring NBA playoff series, but you also learned a few things in the 107-90 Pacers victory.

Paul George is the man. The Hawks still lack an identity. Paul George is the man. The Pacers can actually put points on the board. Kyle Korver does, in fact, miss. Paul George is the man. Roy Hibbert is not. Al Horford and Josh Smith are in for an up-and-down series. And Paul George is the man.

Oh, and this matchup is going to come down to how each front line fares against the other.

George will (probably) continue to toil in obscurity despite absolutely ridiculous stat lines, Jeff Teague will (usually) be a nice barometer for how the Hawks perform overall, and defense should (eventually) become the prevailing narrative in this series. 

But more so than any other individual performances, you have that matchup of the front lines. We're talking Smith and Horford against West and Hibbert. George against Korver. And maybe even a little Tyler Hansbrough versus Ivan Johnson sprinkled in. Mainly, though, the starting three up front will have the most impact.

And for the Pacers, this was a good thing in Game 1.

Indiana's starting front line of George, West and Hibbert combined for 52 points, 28 rebounds, 14 assists, two steals and three blocks on 39.6 percent shooting. Their display from the field wasn't pretty—courtesy of George (23.1 percent) and Hibbert (41.2)—but George did a great job attacking the rim, and finished 17-of-18 from the foul line.

Watching the three of them, it was apparent that George and West have their heads on offensively.

George was just 3-of-13 from the field, but did an excellent job directing the offense (12 assists), and West continues to showcase his fancy footwork and superior handle in the post.

Hibbert does concern me on the offensive end. His shot selection is far from ideal and he tends to shoot a low percentage from the field for a big man. When he's on, he's on. But when he's off, oh man, is he off.

Defensively, these three are exceptional. Not only are they all (relatively) strong rebounders, but they also do a great job providing help defense off switches and rotations. On the perimeter, George is great at fighting over screens and limiting the space his man has to work with.

If I had to nitpick (and I'm going to), Hibbert has the potential to make the unit even better. Of the three, he grabbed the fewest number of rebounds (eight), and I fully believe he would swat close to four or five shots a game if he committed to contesting more field goals.

Still, it's hard not to look at Indiana's front line and cringe if you're the opponent. George and West especially are among the more versatile inside-out players in the NBA.

Atlanta's front three aren't chopped, minced or ground liver, though.

Korver is a three-point specialist, only capable of making a limited impact on the defensive end. In other words, if he's not hitting his shots, he's not effective. In Game 1, he wasn't hitting his shots. Korver was just 2-of-7 from the field (1-of-4 from three) for five points in 22 minutes.

Unlike Korver, Smith has no such limitations. Well, his distance shooting can be an abomination, but still. Smith himself had a stellar game. He was 7-of-15 from the field for 15 points and pitched in eight rebounds and five assists as well. He's truly one of the most underrated passers in the game.

Shot selection continues to be an issue with him. He hoisted up four three-pointers, only one of which should really have been taken. Ball control off the dribble (four turnovers) is an area of concern as well.

Horford had it going in the second quarter before disappearing in the second half. He finished with 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting and six rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block in 28 minutes.

Together, the trio combined for 34 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists, one steal and one block on 44.5 percent shooting in what was, quite frankly, an underwhelming performance. No, it wasn't terrible, but it lacked overall potency. It's no coincidence that they were outscored by 18 points in the front-court battle and the Pacers won by 17. None at all.

This series is going to come down to which front line can rise to the occasion more. Who can grab the most rebounds? Mitigate the impact of their opponent on defense? Emerge as a consistent source of offense? Who is up to the challenge that comes with playing in the postseason?

At first glance, most would immediately look at the Pacers. And I wouldn't (couldn't, really) blame them.

Indiana's front line (Hibbert included) was far more aggressive on both ends of the floor. George outmatched the energy levels of everyone involved, and Korver proved to be a liability that couldn't be covered up. Not when he's hitting on just two of his seven field-goal attempts.

And Smith and Horford aren't going to be able to eclipse the stylings of West or Hibbert (no matter how timid Hibbert tends to play). Far too often, both disappear. Especially Horford. Then there's Smith, who toggles back and forth between a dedicated, two-way superstar and a poor executor whose attitude implies disinterest (though I doubt it is).

Unless the Hawks can figure out how to match the intensity of their front-line adversaries and become more efficient on the defensive end, it's going to be a long series for them.

And an incredibly short one for the Pacers. Not unlike we saw in Game 1.