INDIANAPOLIS – There was nothing in Indiana’s one-sided Game 7 win on Saturday that seemed convincing. Their scheduled second-round opponents, the upstart Washington Wizards, shouldn’t be shaking in their sneakers. Their fans, who packed the Bankers Life Fieldhouse to the brink in this do-or-die game, likely won’t be heading home assured that yet another Game 7 against the defending champion Miami Heat will be in the offing some four weeks from now.
The Pacers survived, though, winning Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks 92-80, advancing to the second round of the playoffs. Yes, the conquest came against against an eighth-seeded team and, yes, it was against an Atlanta Hawks squad that couldn’t even top the .500 mark in the regular season this year, but the Pacers will play on. Warts and all.
The shots that did so much for Atlanta in the first five games of the series, those long-range bombs that spread the Pacers’ top-ranked defense out into oblivion, did the Hawks in as the team gave up a 3-2 series lead. Atlanta entered Game 6 shooting 39 percent from behind the 3-point arc, but finished the series shooting a ridiculous 20 of 79 from behind the line over the next two games, an unworkable 25.3 percent. This was especially apparent in Game 7, when the Hawks took a series of (at times, very good) 3-point looks on their way toward a playoff record-shattering 44 attempts from the 3-point line, hitting only 11 along the way.
The Pacers could only hold their breath, as they waited out what was a nightmare matchup for them. Following the win, all Pacers coach Frank Vogel could do was exhale.
“It’s not easy,” he said after the first-round win, “guarding a team that takes 44 threes, especially when 18 of those threes came from their big guys.” Vogel is to be credited for sticking with his own big guys, forward David West was the driving force behind the Game 6 win, tossing in 24 tough points, and center Roy Hibbert finally emerged as a force on both ends after an embarrassing prior postseason run with 13 points, seven rebounds, five blocks and finally a smile or two.
All series long Vogel had been criticized for playing the All-Star center his usual allotment of minutes, but his team made a point to go to Hibbert from the outset of Game 7, often forcing obvious passes and contributing to the team’s 11 first-half turnovers. The attention paid off, though, as Roy tossed in a series of jump hooks with either hand, settling the Pacers’ previously lacking offense until other, more dynamic, forces took over.
One of which was All-Star swingman Paul George, who set a personal playoff career high with 30 points. Prior to his takeoff, though, the forward was allowed to revel in his teammate’s return to form. “He played his way out of his slump,” George noted, adding that Hibbert’s upcoming series against a bigger and more orthodox Washington squad should be “his round.”
Game 7 was George’s game, though. He started slowly, missing four of his first five shots, and ended poorly, missing seven of his final eight looks, but he also nailed 9 of 10 shots in a second- and third-quarter surge that saw the explosive all-around scorer take to the middle of the court with a flick of the wrist.
“I got a chance to go to my mid-range,” George explained following his 30-point, 11-rebound night. “It opened the game up. I felt confident coming off of screens and shooting the ball tonight.”
It showed. George has had a fine playoff run, averaging 23.8 points and 10.7 rebounds in his team’s first seven contests, but he’s also sometimes left at a loss when he holds the ball and allows the opposing defense to load up on him. Thankfully for the Pacers, George made a point to dash around screens in Game 7. And luckily, George also has the mercurial Lance Stephenson as a teammate to help break things up.
The 6-foot-5 Stephenson was a beast on the glass in Game 7, securing 14 rebounds, five of which came on the offensive end. He tossed in 19 points mainly on those looks around the rim, as even Hibbert’s newfound offensive presence allowed Lance several post up opportunities that led to lay-ins in the paint.
That production was just enough, as the Pacers built an 18-point lead, keeping the Hawks at arm’s length after a fitful first 2 1/2 quarters for both teams. When you pair those contributions with Atlanta’s inability to do much of anything offensively – the team doubled down on that 25 percent shooting mark from long range with a 35 percent mark from inside the arc – and you had a Pacer win that seemed to briefly re-establish the momentum and gusto (from Hibbert, George and Stephenson especially) that marked the team’s 46-13 start to the regular season.
Of course, that record was pitched before a 10-13 run to end the season, a malaise that seemed to carry over into the postseason. After the contest, both Vogel and George pinned the relative troubles against the Hawks as more of a result of Atlanta’s matchup advantages against a bigger Pacer team, but it’s not hard to see fissures in the foundation when the team with the East’s best record tops off a 10-13 end of the season with a series against a sub-.500 team that relied on two desperate back-to-back wins just to move on to the second round.
George credited those 38-win Hawks for helping the Pacers work out their defensive rotations on the fly, while reminding the media that an upcoming series against Washington “is more our playing style,” due to the Wizards’ preponderance of big men – one of which, in center Nene, was unavailable for two of the team’s three regular-season meetings against Indiana. He’s not wrong in that regard, and if the big men play from Game 7 (forward David West also added 13 rebounds and six blocks in the win) carries over into the second round, the Pacers could find themselves in the Eastern Conference finals yet again.
They’ll have to find some way to develop some semblance of continuity, though, something that has been in short supply as winter melted into spring. It’s true the Atlanta Hawks are a talented team that matched up well against a bigger Indiana squad, but there is no reason it should have taken seven games to dispatch a 38-win team.
You get the feeling the Pacers, at long last, understand this.
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