Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers (-6.5, 185.5)
The Indiana Pacers have believed they are capable of knocking off the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference since taking them to the brink last spring. If they hope to get another shot at the defending champs, the third-seeded Pacers will have to figure out a way around the Atlanta Hawks first. The sixth-seeded Hawks visit Indiana on Sunday for Game 1 and have the type of size and strength that could frustrate the Pacers.
The teams split four meetings in the regular season, with each holding home court. Atlanta’s Josh Smith and Al Horford will battle with Indiana’s David West and Roy Hibbert on the inside and try to draw them away from the basket. The Pacers are one of the most disciplined defensive teams in the league but began to show some cracks in April while dropping five of six to close out the regular season. Indiana allowed 102.1 points in its final eight games - nearly 12 points above its season average.
TV: 1 p.m. ET, TNT
ABOUT THE HAWKS (44-38): Atlanta did not exactly finish with a flurry, either, losing five of their final seven to erase any chance of homecourt advantage in the first round. The Hawks went 19-22 on the road and dropped four of their final six away from Atlanta during the regular season, including a 100-94 setback at Indiana on March 25. Smith scored 20 points but the Hawks were outrebounded 49-38 in the loss. Smith played sparingly over the final weeks while fighting off a knee injury but looked strong when he was in the lineup and shot 55 percent from the field in the final month. Atlanta is counting on the point guard combo of Jeff Teague and Devin Harris to give it an advantage on the perimeter. Teague averaged nine assists in April and cut his turnovers to 2.3 - the lowest of any month.
ABOUT THE PACERS (49-32): Indiana looked like a lock for the No. 2 seed in the East before its slump coincided with the New York Knicks’ surge. Either way, the Pacers will have to make it to the Eastern Conference finals if the want to get another crack at the Heat. Indiana led the NBA in rebounding average behind Hibbert and West and was second in points allowed despite the letup on that end late in the season. The biggest difference between this spring and last is the increase role of shooting guard Lance Stephenson, who has given the team a tenacious perimeter defender and a solid shooting option on the wing. Stephenson missed the last meeting with the Hawks but collected 14 points and six rebounds in a 114-103 win over them on Feb. 5.
* Hawks are 1-8 ATS in their last nine vs. Eastern Conference foes.
* Pacers are 0-8 ATS in their last eight Sunday games.
* Over is 7-1 in Hawks’ last eight road games.
* Over is 4-1 in the last five meetings.
1. Smith has averages 15.6 points on 42 percent shooting in 46 career playoff games.
2. Atlanta lost to Boston in the first round last season, ending a streak of three straight first-round series wins.
3. The teams met in the playoffs three straight seasons from 1993-94 through 1995-96. They have not faced off in the postseason since.
Milwaukee Bucks at Miami Heat (-13, 199)
The Miami Heat have spent the last two weeks resting up for the playoffs, sometimes sitting all five starters at the same time and still winning games. The eighth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who visit the top-seeded Heat in the opener of a first-round playoff series on Sunday, have spent the last two weeks backing into the postseason. The Bucks are the only team in the playoffs with a losing record and dropped seven of nine down the stretch.
Most of Miami’s injuries were of the nagging or non-existent variety down the stretch with the exception of Dwyane Wade, who was battling a knee issue. Wade returned over the final two games and looked sharp with 21 points and 10 assists on Wednesday. The Heat are the favorites to repeat as champion and have done little to make anyone doubt that prognostication. Miami finished the season with wins in 37 of its final 39 games and ranks in the top five in both points scored and points allowed. Milwaukee will try to pick at the Heat’s lone weakness on the glass while Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings attempt to wear them out on the perimeter.
TV: 7 p.m. ET, TNT, Sun Sports (Miami)
ABOUT THE BUCKS (38-44): Milwaukee was two games above .500 after beating the Portland Trail Blazers on March 19 and was threatening to move up out of the No. 8 spot. But the Bucks went 4-12 over their final 16 games and struggled on the defensive end while getting inconsistent production from Jennings and Ellis on the perimeter. Jennings went 1-for-11 from the field in a home loss to Denver in the next-to-last game of the season but had one of his best games with 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting in a 94-83 loss at Miami on April 9. That marked the only time in Milwaukee’s final 22 games that he shot better than 50 percent from the floor. Where the Bucks excel is on the glass. Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova and John Henson will try to keep LeBron James off the boards and out of transition.
ABOUT THE HEAT (66-16): Miami has the best player in the game in James and put together the second-longest winning streak in NBA history with 27 straight that included 107-94 triumph at Milwaukee on March 15. Anything less than back-to-back titles will be a disappointment for the Heat. Miami’s biggest worry on Sunday will be how the team comes together after so many of the regulars took multiple games off and did not get a chance to play together down the stretch. The Heat should be able to shake off that rust by halftime in their own building, where they posted an Eastern Conference-best 37-4 record. James just finished up a regular season in which he shot 56.5 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from beyond the arc. He went 11-for-16 from the field in the April 9 win over the Bucks and has averaged 29.4 points on 50.1 percent shooting against Milwaukee in his career.
* Bucks are 2-8 ATS in their last 10 road games.
* Heat are 7-1 ATS in their last eight games overall.
* Over is 5-1 in Heat’s last six home games.
* Over is 4-0 in Bucks’ last four Sunday games.
1. Sanders missed the final four games of the regular season with a back injury and is questionable for Sunday.
2. The Heat are bidding to become the 10th team (out of 13) to win the title after posting at least 66 wins in the regular season.
3. Henson averaged 15 points and 15 rebounds in the final five games.