ESPN’s televised NBA match-up of Indiana against Atlanta on Friday night features two intriguing and formidable teams who, along with Toronto and Chicago, are collectively using every tactic short of a crowbar to pry LeBron James’ hands away from the Eastern Conference crown. Going to back to his days with the Miami Heat, King James has won five consecutive conference titles, and has gone on to win two NBA championships. James pretty much owns the East.
The Pacers and Hawks, who square off at 7 p.m. ET at Philips Arena in Atlanta, have long tired of being vanquished by the 6-foot-8, 250-pound linebacker masquerading as a small forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and who arrogantly believes the East crown is his mistress.
The Pacers came heart-wrenchingly close to defeating James a few years ago, taking the LBJ-lead Heat to seven games in the East Finals. The Hawks, who set a franchise record for wins last season and captured the No. 1 seed along with home-field advantage in the playoffs, were surprisingly backhanded by LeBron’s Cleveland Cavs, getting swept in the East Finals, and thus deflating Hawks fans like a popped balloon. Even local pundits and broadcasters got swept up in the euphoria that billowed up throughout the ATL region caused by the Hawks’ career year and believed it was their time to finally get to the Finals for the first time in the team’s history.
This year, the Hawks returned to earth, record-wise, after their magic carpet ride crashed and burned in the East Finals in 2015. And there is a reason for this, says ESPN’s NBA senior analyst Chris Broussard.
“I know they made it to the (Eastern) Conference Finals. And when they won all those games before the All-Star break (in 2014-15) and everyone was saying ‘oh, my God!’ But they were never true contenders. Teams were not taking them very seriously. They were catching teams off guard. And no one expected much from Atlanta and then — wow! — here they come, they are playing a nice style and moving the basketball, and they shared the rock like San Antonio and Golden State and they were very successful and kudos to them,” Broussard said.
“But if you noticed, after the All-Star break last year, when teams began to have them on their radar, like, ‘Atlanta is legit; We have to really bring our A-game in order to beat them.’ And if you look, after the All-Star break, Atlanta was just a few games over .500. After the All-Star break, they were playing like they are playing now. So don’t get it twisted; they were never true contenders. They were never close to Cleveland, and they got swept last year because Cleveland was just that much better than them (even without Kevin Love).”
The Hawks can make some noise in the East this year, Broussard believes, but says they are a marquee piece or perennial superstar away from really ascending to NBA aristocracy – the enviable perch from which LeBron James and the Cavs and the top Western Conference teams currently look down at the rest of the league.
“You need stars in this league,” Broussard somberly surmised. “Atlanta has a group of really good players. But they don’t have a superstar. With Cleveland, you have LeBron and Kyrie (Irving) and Kevin Love is a really good player. With Oklahoma, you have (Russell) Westbrook and Kevin Durant. With San Antonio you have Kawai Leonard and DeMarcus Aldridge and the Big Three (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli). And with Golden State you have Steph Curry, a superstar, and you have Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Even with the Clippers, you have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Atlanta doesn’t have that. And until they get one, possibly two, players of that caliber, Atlanta will continue to be just a pretty good team in the Eastern Conference.”
Despite the fact that the Hawks are currently situated at No. 3 in the Eastern Conference with a 29-22 record while the Pacers cling to the 7th spot at 26-23, Broussard said the teams are not that dissimilar from each other, which makes for an intriguing mid-season tussle.
“I think these teams are pretty evenly matched. There is not much difference between them,” Broussard said, adding that the two teams are mixed within the cluster of quality teams between No. 2 and No. 8. “Indiana will have the best player on the floor in Paul George. But these two teams are pretty much on the same level.”
Broussard added that he believes that George has returned to his status as a superstar and elite NBA player after the stomach-churning compound fracture he suffered a little more than a year ago and should help the Pacers surge after the All-Star break.
“In the NBA, you have four players that are head and shoulders above everyone else — LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant,” Broussard said resolutely but added that George, he believes, is a difference maker and is a Top 10 player in the league. “I believe he is having a really good season. He has earned a starting spot in the All-Star game, which I believe is well warranted. He started off the season strong. He’s come back to earth a little, but still having a really good season. He’s the reason Indiana is in the playoff mix. So I like him a lot.”