All season long, the Indiana Pacers stressed the importance of getting home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. They're going to find out if it pays dividends a couple of rounds earlier than they might have expected.
David West scored 12 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, and Paul George chipped in nine of his 24 in the final frame, to push the Pacers past the Atlanta Hawks 95-88 at Philips Arena in Game 6 on Thursday night to knot their best-of-seven first-round series at three games apiece.
"We've been in this position before," said West, who added 11 rebounds, six assists and two steals with just one turnover in 40 brilliant minutes. "We're very confident in our ability to guard, particularly down the stretch, and we came up with enough plays down the stretch to win a tough, tough game on the road."
Game 7 will take place on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. How much of an advantage the Pacers actually have there is a matter of some debate — the Hawks have already scored three wins there this season, including twice in this series — but considering this trip home could have come after a season-ending loss capping a potentially franchise-altering debacle, I'm pretty sure the Pacers will be quite happy to take their chances in the friendly confines.
Indiana head coach Frank Vogel took a chance on Thursday by standing pat, opening the game with Roy Hibbert — averaging less than five points on 31.3 percent shooting and 3 1/2 rebounds in 22 minutes per game in this series — back in the lineup as part of the same starting five he's rolled out throughout the series and the season. It didn't work out super hot. When Hibbert headed to the bench with two fouls at the 5:27 mark, the Hawks had lit out to a 15-5 lead.
Give credit where it's due, though — rather than go right to backup center Ian Mahinmi and stay in a two-traditional-big look, he opted for little-used floor-spacer Chris Copeland. Almost instantly, the small-ball unit for which George had called at Thursday's shootaround began to generate cleaner offensive looks while also looking better equipped to stay with the Hawks' shooters and ball-handlers on the perimeter. By quarter's end, the Hawks' lead was down to two; a minute into the second, Indy had taken the lead.
While Indy's offense got untracked a bit without Hibbert clogging the paint, the Pacers were helped tremendously by Atlanta's inability to knock down ... well, anything. After Hibbert exited the game, the Hawks shot just 10 for 29 from the field (34.5 percent) and 3 for 14 from 3-point land in the first half, as the Pacers appeared to do a significantly better job pressuring the perimeter and fighting through screens than they have for the bulk of this series, and Mahinmi providing more active interior defense than Hibbert has in quite some time.
"We matched their speed a little bit," West told NBA TV's Molly Sullivan. "The guys that came in that hadn't been playing much did great for us."
On the strength of a plus-15 spurt after Hibbert hit the pine, the Pacers took a five-point lead into halftime after an eventful final minute that saw Atlanta's Mike Scott and Indy's George Hill get double technicals for a scuffle that could loom large come Saturday, followed by Lou Williams and Hill hitting dueling deep 3-pointers in the final three seconds of the quarter. This marked the first time this series they've led at intermission. (Again: No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.)
With Hibbert staying put on the bench to start the third quarter, the Pacers continued to both harass Atlanta's shooters and get higher-quality looks themselves, extending their lead to nine at 57-48 with just over 5 1/2 minutes remaining in the frame. Shortly thereafter, though, George — who had been instrumental in stifling Teague's penetration — picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench. Right away, Teague scored four quick points and got the Hawks back in the business of attacking the rim. But what really picked up Atlanta's offense — and the mood in Philips Arena — was when Scott attacked the rim, much to Mahinmi's chagrin:
Scott's dunk cut Indy's lead to 59-54; from there, the Hawks went on a 13-5 run to close the quarter, giving Atlanta a three-point lead heading into the fourth and putting Pacers president Larry Bird in a bad, bad place.
The two teams fought in a phone booth for the lion's share of the fourth quarter, with the score mostly staying within two possessions, neither side able to establish much separation, and tensions running high. With three minutes remaining, the Pacers trailed by five ... and that's when West took over.
He drew a foul on Hawks power forward Paul Millsap to get to the line for a pair of free throws, then followed a turnover by Pero Antic with a smooth 20-footer that cut the lead to one. After Hill had put Indy up 85-84 with a tough hanging layup and Antic had split a pair of freebies on the other end, West set a high screen for Hill, then popped to the top of the key, the spot where he's hit so many big jumpers over the years. But despite being open momentarily, West paused, faced down Millsap, and decided he wasn't settling for a jumper. Lance Stephenson tried to cut to the ball; West politely told him to get the hell out of the way, then drove left, went past Millsap and lofted up a little righty runner that found the bottom of the net, giving the Pacers an 87-85 lead that they would not relinquish.
Indy finished the game on a 16-4 run over those final three minutes, with West scoring eight points while George and Hill went a perfect 6 for 6 from the foul line. They got it done on the other end, too, holding Atlanta to 1-for-6 shooting, forcing two Hawk turnovers that led to four Pacer points and coming away with the rebound on all seven shots that were missed down the stretch. For all the things the Pacers have done wrong over the past three months and in this series, they had to have this game, they fought for it, and they won it.
"You know, obviously, we're just in desperation mode," West said. "We had to get this game to get back in our home building. We're prepared to go down there and fight a hard Game 7."
Of course it's going to be hard — nothing's been easy for these Pacers since early February. But if Vogel's willing to stick with the lineups that worked and if those smaller, nimbler outfits can keep the Hawks from rediscovering their shooting stroke, these Pacers could still escape with their lives.
"We lost two games there because we allowed those big stretches where they went on those crazy runs," West said. "We can't allow that to happen in Game 7."
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