By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
ATLANTA — Survive and advance.
It’s a no-drills edict for each and every team in the NBA playoff field, but one that resonates in a particular way for a crew built on the bedrock the Indiana Pacers have been crafted upon. An ugly win somewhere else is viewed differently in a locker room where David West rules the roost and a self-made, homegrown All-Star like Paul George reigns as the biggest talent.
There couldn’t have been a more fitting end to the Pacers’ physical Game 4 altercation with the Atlanta Hawks, a potentially series- and season-saving 91-88 slugfest that saw the No. 1 seed Pacers even things up with the No. 8 seed Hawks at 2-2 heading back for Game 5 Monday in Indianapolis.
George and West, with their back-to-back game-saving 3-pointers in a 21-second span with just two minutes to play, lifted the Pacers, at least temporarily, out of a funk that threatened their entire season.
It was twilight zone time when West sank his 25-footer, if for no other reason than he’s the last person on the Pacers’ roster anyone would expect to be in a position to take and make that shot. Roy Hibbert, who sat out the entire fourth quarter for the second straight game, was going wild as the Pacers rallied for a 89-85 lead with 1:33 to play. Meanwhile, Lance Stephenson, whose been known to lose his cool a time or two in the heat of the moment, is preaching for everyone to stay calm, reminding his teammates that there was plenty of game still to be played.
“We needed that moment,” Stephenson said. “we needed this game. We turned it around, it’s 2-2 and I feel like it’s 0-0 now. The whole game I felt like we played hard, but those last three minutes of the game I saw that will to win that had been missing. It was good to see it come back.”
The immediate effect was obvious. The music was on in the Pacers’ locker room after the game. There weren’t any questions about what’s ailing them and why they can’t seem to get right, on and off the floor. There was a reprieve from the inquisition that they’ve had to endure for weeks. An off-day roasting during a film session with Frank Vogel and his staff helped clear the air and refocus this beleaguered group as they hunkered down for what, until Monday, was their biggest game of the season.
“It’s the difference between a win and a loss,” Vogel said. “With playoff wins and playoff losses, there’s a great elation when you win and a great disappointment when you lose. There’s a big difference.”
For all of the grief they’ve taken since the All-Star break, it should be noted that the Pacers responded to their season being minutes away from being on the brink in the only way they know how, with a guts-to-the-floor second-half effort that had become their trademark early on this season.
They had to lock down on defense with 6.9 seconds to play as the Hawks attempted to tie the game and send it to overtime. The Hawks had to settle for a 27-footer from Pero Antic — not Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap or Jeff Teague, all of whom had shredded the Pacers in one way or another at times in the previous 47 minutes and 53 seconds — that bounced off the rim as time expired.
“We’re a half-court defensive team. We take pride in guarding guys half court,” a weary George said after playing a game-high 44 minutes and collecting team highs in points (24) and rebounds (10) to go along with 5 assists. “We knew Kyle Korver was the main option. George Hill did a great job fighting him over the screen and not letting him come back off. From that point, David West was locked in on his guy and we just forced them to take a tough shot.”
The Pacers know they don’t have to play Mozart to survive the Hawks in the first round of these playoffs. They can get by with chopsticks, provided they play like the No. 1 seed and not some shell of that team.
There are matchups that will cause problems. The Hawks, perhaps more than any other team in the Eastern Conference playoff field, present many. But this series is back on track, a best-of-three with the Pacers once again holding the home court advantage.
That’s what made Game 4, and those final 12 minutes, so unbelievably critical to the Pacers’ season-long cause.
“This game could have gotten away from us and we’d be down 3-1,” said George, who missed two free throws with 7.5 seconds to play that could have made that final defensive stand unnecessary. “It’s going to be a long series. This team is not going away. We just have to build some consistency.”
It has to come one game and one step at a time as the Pacers frantically rebuild their collective confidence, starting with Hibbert, Hill and Stephenson and on down the line.
“We know that this series may go to seven [games], you never know,” Hill said. “When Boston put together their Big 3, just about every series they had went to seven. Listen, we’re up for the challenge. And no matter what happens throughout the course of a game or a series, we’re built for this. We’re built to be physical, to be tough and to grind it out.”