By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
WASHINGTON – The who, the what, the where, the when – all of that stuff is set, the boxes checked, the blanks filled in, no different on paper than how the Indiana Pacers would have written it back in October:
Miami Heat. Eastern Conference finals. Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Sunday afternoon.
The how of what the Indiana Pacers did – earning a best-of-seven clash with the Heat for the third straight postseason, the teams’ second in a row with a trip to The Finals at stake – has been the big unexpected, the big uneasy.
Whether that makes them less dangerous or more dangerous when they face the two-time NBA defending champions, well, we’ll find out soon enough.
The Pacers’ locker room was split on the impact of their two playoff series so far, in the hour or so after their 93-80 victory over the Washington Wizards Thursday night at the Verizon Center. For some, this always will be a bottom-line business and the scoreboard told the tale, Indiana taking the East semifinals series 4-2 over a feisty team on the rise.
For others, the way it wrapped up – the Pacers losing a 16-point lead, falling behind by one, 74-73, with 8:35 to go, on the road – was sufficiently humbling, reminding them, even scaring them, into some perspective and reflection.
To be clear, none of them said anything about feeling less dangerous. But several brushed off the tortuous path they’ve taken to get “back” to this point, while others realized their struggles over the past month or two had both taken a toll and maybe steeled them for more.
Coach Frank Vogel and point guard George Hill were planted firmly in the land of denial. “Everything is behind us,” Vogel said. “Like we said when we started the playoffs, 33-7 [the Pacers’ first-half record] means nothing. How we struggled down the stretch, and took a lot of criticism, that means nothing. That’s behind us and this is where we wanted to be. At the conference finals and a chance to move on.”
Said Hill, asked about people’s perception of the Pacers lately: “People as in, like, you guys? We don’t care about you guys like that. We’re just trying to figure out what’s best for this team in this locker room. Don’t worry about what people are saying about us. Out of all that, we still won [64 games regular and postseason] this year. You can say what you want to, this is a good basketball team.”
Fair enough. But the Pacers got to good by starting out great, then slipping, followed by churning, introspection, vulnerability, bravado, turmoil, resolve, questioning, sniping and redemption. They got well time and again, only to get sick again. The lowly Atlanta Hawks took them to seven games, and the precocious Wizards embarrassed them in Game 5 and rattled them repeatedly. Indiana, the team that so treasured winning home-court advantage through the conference bracket, dropped the openers of both series, got booed at home and went 3-4 at BLFH against the Hawks and Wizards.
So sure, if you go simply by a snapshot, the Pacers are right where they wanted to be. But if you open your assessment to a slideshow, you might land where veteran Washington big man Drew Gooden did Thursday night.
“The Pacers are a team where it’s a roller-coaster ride with them,” Gooden said. “They’re playing elite basketball in spurts. And they’re playing average basketball in spurts.”
It all was on display in Game 6. Humiliated on the boards, mocked for their blown opportunity to close out at home Tuesday, the Pacers were more assertive, crisper in their intentions and led all night by one proud war horse named David West.
As he had in Game 6 in Atlanta – saving their butts with 24 points while dragging his teammates home for a Game 7 – West basically refused to lose. That cliché about “imposing one’s will” on a game? That’s what West did, in word and in deed.
“I told the guys, we took this game piece by piece,” West said. “Every two minutes, try to reiterate our principles, trying to communicate through their runs and their adjustments, their plays. We knew they’d make a run – they took that lead – but I thought we maintained our composure.”
Indiana had led by 16 and, at halftime, by 12. By the start of the fourth, with the Wizards finally putting their pace into the game, the gap was eight. And when Bradley Beal ripped a rebound out of Pacers center Roy Hibbert‘s hands and raced down to hit a 3-pointer, Washington’s 19-4 run across the quarter break was complete and Indiana’s lead was gone.
Thirty-three second later, it was back to stay. West hit a step-back 19-footer that rattled in, essentially what he’d been doing all night, and his tenacity washed over the Wizards.
“Reactions of the Wizards, you could tell that that shot hurt ‘em,” said Paul George, who struggled/deferred offensively and focused on chasing Beal around. “That was a tough blow for ‘em. They couldn’t get over that shot.”
Wizards coach Randy Wittman couldn’t get over how many times West shot – he was 13-for-26 – and with good reason: That’s the most field-goal attempts West ever has taken in four years with Indiana, the most since he put up 30 for New Orleans in December 2009.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” West said. “I just wasn’t going to leave anything in the clip, y’know? I felt like I had to get beyond what I usually do. Most of the time I’m out there trying to facilitate and find guys. After I hit my first couple, I saw the way they was guarding, particularly up top. I just wanted, every time the ball touched my hands, to try to be aggressive and make something happen for us.
“My message to [teammates] was, ‘Just come to me.’ We couldn’t lose. We couldn’t lose this game. I was just trying to keep guys confident and encouraged. Ultimately I wanted it to be on my shoulders. If we lost this game, I wanted it to be on me.”
Blue-collar grinder that he is, West considered Hill’s rebound when boxing out Wizards center Marcin Gortat, after a missed 3-pointer by Beal at 81-76, to be the game’s biggest play. West hit from 21 feet at the other end to bump the lead to seven and the Pacers kept pushing, to nine, 11, 13, 14. Washington came up empty on eight straight possessions and the reality started to hit home.
Reality is hitting home for Indiana too, that as pesky as the Wizards were, they aren’t Miami. The Pacers, meanwhile, aren’t the Pacers, not the guys who breezed for four months or, maybe, not the ones who’ve wandered for the past two.
Just maybe, what didn’t eliminate the Pacers will make them stronger. That’s West’s take and he’s sticking to it.
“This is not going to be an easy thing,” he said. “What we’re trying to do and the journey we’ve been on, it’s not been easy. And it’s not scripted. So you can’t say this series is going to go one way, this series is going to go another way. You’ve just got to keep preparing every single day and take the moments as they come.”
They start coming in a few days, on a floor that seems to mean little anymore, against an opponent they’ve wanted from the start but now have to actually face.
“Again, we’re going to trust who we are,” West said. “We never lost our confidence in our abilities. We’ve had some tough games against some tough teams. … Atlanta put us on the brink. They stretched us out and they really made us have to go inside ourselves. As a group, figure out who we were and where we wanted to be.
“We easily could have been home already.”
They’ll be home Sunday, whatever that means and whoever they are.