Roy Hibbert has struggled mightily against Atlanta's Pero Antic this season. (File photos)

Roy Hibbert has struggled mightily against Atlanta’s Pero Antic this season. (File photos)


20130429-135523.jpgJeff Teague can cause problems with his speed, Paul Millsap with his versatility and Kyle Korver, of course, with his shooting stroke.

But the key to the Pacers’ first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks is a 31-year-old rookie from Macedonia. That’s right: Pero Antic.

For whatever reason, the 6-10, 260-pound journeyman center transforms into a game-changer against the Pacers, twice dominating the matchup with Roy Hibbert, effectively taking the two-time All-Star out of both games.

Simply put, Hibbert and the Pacers cannot allow that to happen again, at least not with any regularity, in the postseason series that begins this weekend at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“I think Pero Antic is a good player,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. “I know he’s not very well-known but he’s a very good player. It’s not Pero Antic, it’s the uniqueness of their team’s offensive attack. That’s what makes him become a focal point.”

The Hawks were 2-0 against the Pacers during the regular season with Antic in the lineup. He averaged 17.0 points and 5.0 rebounds, hit 13 of 18 shots (.722) overall and 6 of 10 (.600) from the 3-point line. Two of his three highest scoring totals of his season (18 and 16) came against the Pacers. This from the lowest-paid Atlanta starter at $1.2 million, only slightly above what the Pacers are paying Andrew Bynum.

And Hibbert?

In two games against Antic, he totaled 31 minutes, two points, four rebounds and 1-for-13 shooting. With Hibbert on the floor, the Pacers were outscored by 40 points. He was famously benched at halftime of the last meeting between the teams, as the Hawks built a 32-point first-half lead.

Regular-season shot charts for Hibbert (top) and Antic reveal starkly contrasting offensive tendencies. The colors reflect percentages relative to the league: green for above average, yellow for average, red for below.

Regular-season shot charts for Hibbert (top) and Antic reveal starkly contrasting offensive tendencies. The colors reflect statistics relative to the league: green for above, yellow for average, red for below.

“Having a spread four and a spread five, getting Big Dog out of the paint helped them a little bit,” said Lance Stephenson. “But we’re going to watch film, we’re going to try to stop that and get some Ws here and at their gym.

“We know Big Dog’s got the left and the right hook and we’re going to try to exploit that, get him the ball and go inside-out. I feel like nobody can stop us inside-out. On defense, we’ve just got to be in our gaps a little bit more and help him out.”

Defensively, the Pacers’ problem with Antic has started on the perimeter, where George Hill has struggled mightily to contain the quickness of Hawks point guard Jeff Teague. That has left Hibbert in no-man’s land, caught between chasing his man to the perimeter and providing help in the lane. When Hibbert chooses to provide help, the defenders assigned to rotate and cover Antic have been either too small to contest his shot or too late in arriving to disrupt his rhythm.

Offensively, it’s all on Hibbert. He has simply been unable to get anything going against Antic in the post, where the highest-paid member of the Pacers is supposed to be in control. Antic is unusual for a stretch five in that he also has the size, strength and wherewithal to hold his own defensively in the post.

“We’ve got to make sure (Hibbert)’s being a monster on the offensive end,” Vogel said. “He’s got to post hard, he’s really got to pound the glass and try to hurt him down there. And we’ve got to be a lot sharper with our coverages. We haven’t been sharp with the coverages both with the pick-and-rolls, the way they space him, and other people’s pick-and-rolls.

“More than anything, we’ve got to be a better containment team. A lot of the threes they get from their bigs are just a matter of the guards not containing the basketball.”

Getting some kind of offensive production from Hibbert will be the problem. He has finished the season in a deep funk. shooting 2-for-21 in his last three games, averaging just 7.7 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.27 blocks and .303 shooting in his last 11.

He is a much different player than the one that surged down the stretch last season and took his game to dominating levels in the playoffs.

“Everybody has to understand Roy’s primary role with this team is to protect the rim and he’s the best in the league at it,” Vogel said. “That’s where his focus is, first and foremost. We want to see his rebounding improve and obviously when we get some production from him on the offensive end, that’s when we’re at our best. But there’s nights when we don’t get production from him on the offensive end that we’re still pretty good, too.”

Though their regular-season record was by far the worst of any playoff team, the Hawks come together of late, posting a 12-6 record with their current starting lineup of Teague, Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Millsap and Antic.

“We have great respect for how they’ve played,” Vogel said. “Their record is more indicative of the injuries they’ve had as much as anything because the guys they have in uniform have proven over the last few weeks to play at as high a level as most teams that are going into the playoffs. We don’t look at their record in that regard. All we have to do is look at their last game here to see what they’re capable of.”

On paper, one of the Pacers’ biggest matchup advantages in this series is at center. On the court, it must begin to work out that way, lest the Hawks do to the Pacers what Antic has done to Hibbert, and make them vanish.

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