March 8, 2013; Orlando FL, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) against the Orlando Magic during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Prediction: #3 Indiana Pacers v. #6 Atlanta Hawks

The 44 win, 6th seeded Atlanta Hawks would not have qualified for the 8th seed in the West. Winning that many games against Western Conference teams would have been unlikely, as well. But after somehow unloading Joe Johnson’s ridiculous contract and letting the Josh Smith contract play itself out (free agency looms), the Hawks were to be in limbo this year. They were supposed to be waiting for Dwight Howard or Chris Paul or someone new to turn the Hawks into something more not like the Hawks. Instead they’ve gotten a boost in production from their point guard and a return to form from one of their old big 3 — and they’re going to get an overly physical first round playoff series against the Pacers. Pretty nice transition year.

Pacers probable starting lineup:

PG George Hill

SG Lance Stephenson

SF Paul George

PF David West

C Roy Hibbert

The Stephenson transformation from over-sized ego’d big mouth New Yorker to dependable rotation player this year has been a pleasant story for the Pacers. Of course, so has Paul George, who has come into his own as a scoring, playmaking, jack-of-all-trades (who was taken 6 spots after the Wolves drafted Wes Johnson at #4 in 2010, just saying). George was dealing with a strained abdomen in the final weeks of the regular season, but should be ready to go.

The development of Stephenson alongside Paul — who’s stepped up for injured, supposed franchise guy Danny Granger — is a boon for the Pacers, who broke the bank last summer on Hibbert, have Hill locked up until 2017,  have only one year left on Granger’s deal, and have a decision to make on David West.

Hawks probable starting lineup:

PG Jeff Teague

SG Devin Harris

SF Kyle Korver

PF Josh Smith

C Al Horford

The Hawks have no real quality depth on their bench and no real center to combat Hibbert, but with only Horford, John Jenkins and the injured Lou Williams signed beyond this year they have a ton of options this offseason. And it’s coming soon.

Prediction: Pacers in 4.

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Tags: Al Horford Atlanta Hawks Eastern Conference Playoffs Indiana Pacers Josh Smith Lance Stephenson Nba Playoff Predictions Nba Playoff Preview Nba Playoffs Paul George Preview Wesley Johnson

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