By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
ATLANTA — So this is what all the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference fuss was about.
The Indiana Pacers freaked out about it, obsessed over it all summer, from the moment they walked off the floor on the losing end of things last summer in Miami in the Eastern Conference finals.
They stalked from the day training camp opened and still fretted over it as their season careened from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.
It was their mission this season to earn it, knowing full well they might need to use the home-court advantage that comes with it to get out of a jam at some point during these playoffs.
But so soon?
In the first round?
Against the Atlanta Hawks?
Of course not.
But it doesn’t matter now. None of the minutiae matters with their entire season down to this one, winner-take-all Game 7 Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Whatever missteps have been made along the way become background music to their playoff soundtrack if they can string together back-to-back wins against that 38-win Hawks team that has had their number the past month, both in Atlanta and Indianapolis.
Thursday night’s dramatic come-from-behind 95-88 win before a sellout crowd at Philips Arena was the season saver.
History, and more importantly infamy, will have to wait.
“This was a gutsy win for our guys,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.
Saturday night’s Game 7 is a must-win … to save face, the future and the Pacers from the humiliation of one of the greatest collapses of a so-called contender in league history.
“It’s zero-zero. One game. It’s tournament time,” Pacers All-Star Paul George said after he and his teammates avoided becoming just the fifth No. 1 seed in NBA history to fall to a No. 8 seed. “It’s win or go home time. So we’ve got to play a great game, because we know as well as they know that they’re capable of beating us on our home floor.”
The Pacers haven’t played one of those great games in forever. They’ve managed to just get by up to this point in this series. They outlasted the Hawks in Game 6 more than anything, staying in it long enough for George, who was in foul trouble early and throughout the game, and David West to take turns playing hero down the stretch.
It was the execution of a delicate two-man dance the Pacers have not been able to rely upon throughout this series.
Faced with a choice between survival and surrender, the Pacers’ two best and most reliable players snatched away a game the Hawks simply gave away. They scored 24 points each, West scored 12 of his in the fourth quarter on 5-for-6 shooting from the floor after making just 5-for-14 before halftime.
The Hawks were up 84-79 after a Jeff Teague 17-footer with 3:16 to play sent the crowd into a frenzy. Three disastrous offensive possessions later — Hawks center Pero Antic turned the ball over, then missed a wild 26-footer followed by a missed 17-footer from Paul Millsap — and West finished things off on a clear out with a driving runner with 1:07 to play that put the Pacers up 87-85 and ahead for good.
Lance Stephenson added 21 points and 9 rebounds and the Pacers got quality minutes and production from Ian Mahinmi, Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson on a night when Vogel decided regulars Roy Hibbert (12 minutes), Luis Scola (12 seconds) and Even Turner (DNP — coach’s decision) weren’t a part of the solution.
“We tried some different lineups,” said West, who added 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals to his statistical tally in Game 6. “Coach just rolled the dice. Down the stretch I was talking to Paul down the stretch and I told him it would be just me and him down the stretch. I thought our team did a great job closing the show. We got enough stops. Ian was great on Millsap, and it paid off for us.”
We won’t know for sure until Saturday if it was a temporary fix or not.
What’s clear, however, is that these Hawks have no fear in them where the Pacers are concerned. Never mind that 0-8 record all-time in road Game 7s.
They bounced back from a Game 4 loss and stroked the Pacers in Game 5, leading by as many as 30 points as they turned the home crowd against George, West, Stephenson and a frantic bunch that didn’t handle the business at hand. The Hawks shot the cover off the ball that night, knocking down 15 of their 27 shots from deep compared to just nine of 35 in Game 6.
“They’ve burned us a couple of times,” West said. “We’ve had some stretches where we didn’t put the ball in the basket. We just can’t allow those stretches where we allow 20 points to our three or four. We’ve got to make sure we get a shot on goal on every possession, because they are so explosive, especially from the three-point line. We’ve played all year for this, to get Game 7s in our building. The energy is going to be great. We just have to handle our business.”
If only it were that simple for the crew that has courted this moment and this stage for so long!