Back in the playoffs for a third straight season and a Central Division title in tow, the Indiana Pacers are set to face the Atlanta Hawks Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
The Pacers captured their first division title since 2003-04 and earned the No. 3 seed in the conference. They did, however, end the regular season with five losses in six tries, but it's a new season now.
"We're ready to play. Our guys have had three really good days of practice and I think half our guys were wishing the game was (Saturday)," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "I think we're very locked in. I think we're very, very, very familiar with all the strengths and weaknesses of the Hawks."
Indiana and Atlanta split four games in the regular season with each team prevailing as the host. The two teams will meet in the postseason for the fifth time and have split the first four playoff series.
The last time Indiana and Atlanta met in the playoffs was in 1996, when the Hawks took that series in five games.
"The postseason is intense. You have to be ready, every possession matters, details matter. You can't make the same mistakes," Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. "It's gonna be fun but at the same time a lot of blood, sweat and tears go into it. I don't want to go home and be watching somebody else compete for a championship."
Indiana defeated Orlando in five games in last season's quarterfinals, but was bounced from the competition in six games in the semis to eventual-champion Miami. The Pacers, though, have that look and desire to make this year's run last and will do it with All-Star Paul George, Hibbert, David West, George Hill and a cast of reserves worthy of adulation.
"This is a fresh start for me. A chance to start a new streak and start building different habits," George said.
The Pacers achieved their success in the regular season without Danny Granger, who is finished for the year due to knee surgery. Granger would have been a nice piece for Vogel's philosophy had he been able to recover sooner.
Indiana, which went 30-11 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, was second in opponents scoring, holding teams to 90.7 ppg.
"They're one of the more physical teams in the league," Hawks big man Al Horford said. "When we play that way we're very effective."
Atlanta is making its sixth straight appearance in the postseason and earned the No. 6 seed in the East. The six straight playoff berths is tied for the longest active playoff streak in the conference with Boston.
The Hawks, much like the Pacers, struggled at season's end with five losses in the last seven games and were eliminated by Boston in six games in last year's quarterfinals. Hawks guard Jeff Teague is a quick player who finished third on the team in scoring with 14.6 ppg and first with 7.2 assists. Atlanta was second in the NBA and first in the East with 24.5 assists per game.
Most of the scoring load will rest upon the broad shoulders of Josh Smith and Horford. Rumored to be dealt at the trade deadline, Smith stuck around and scored a team-high 17.5 ppg.
Horford was second with 17.4 ppg and first in rebounds (10.2 rpg). Horford matches up well with Hibbert, who said he will try to move around more outside of the paint because of how hard the Hawks play down low. Atlanta has sharpshooter Kyle Korver whenever it needs a big shot and he has made at least one 3-pointer in 73 straight games.