INDIANAPOLIS — On the brink of elimination, the Indiana Pacers suddenly remembered who they are. Once they did, the Atlanta Hawks were in trouble.
The Pacers completed a comeback and silenced their critics (for now) Saturday night with a 92-80 closeout victory in Game 7 of an opening-round Eastern Conference playoff series. Trailing 3-2 in the series, the Pacers rallied late in Game 6 on the Hawks’ turf. Then the East’s No. 1 seed capitalized on the home-court advantage it had worked hard to earn.
The Pacers fed off the energy of a sellout crowd of 18,165 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Ahead by 11 points at halftime, they opened a 17-point lead to take charge in the third quarter.
Paul George did exactly what one of the NBA’s best players should do in a Game 7. He led the way with a game-high 30 points and had 11 rebounds. Lance Stephenson had 19 points, 14 rebounds and five assists.
“They really had a tall task, but they rose to the challenge,” Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said. “Paul George really carried us on the offensive end for a lot of the game. Paul’s shot-making was a big part of why we won. . . . He was special.”
There was even a Roy Hibbert sighting.
The big man, who mostly had a nightmarish series, delivered his best performance by far: 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots. Clearly, fans did their part to encourage Hibbert, who received a standing ovation in the third.
“You always feel for guys on your team who are struggling,” Vogel said. “You encourage them. You challenge them. They’re like your family. They’re like your children. You want the best for them. So [it was] very gratifying to see him step up the way he did tonight.”
The Pacers expect similar support throughout the East semifinals against the well-rested Wizards. Game 1 is here Monday night.
Indiana struggled the last two months of the regular season. It had to dig deep to outlast Atlanta, the only team with a sub-.500 record in the playoffs, in a tougher-than-it-should-have-been series.
But the Pacers think they’re finally back. By moving on, they’ll get a chance to prove it.
During the teams’ regular season series, the Pacers won two of three against the Wizards. The Wizards’ lone victory was a 91-78 blowout March 28 at Verizon Center. The defeat occurred during the Pacers’ bad stretch. Of course, that’s old news.
In the final two games against Atlanta, Indiana proved it hasn’t lost all its mettle. And for the Pacers, Hibbert’s unexpected contribution — on both ends of the court — was an especially encouraging sign.
How poorly had Hibbert played in the series? Consider: With a putback layup early in the first quarter, Hibbert produced more points than he had in Games 5 and 6 combined. Not only did Hibbert avert a third consecutive shutout, he was efficient on offense (he made 6 of 10 field goal attempts) and active on defense. The Pacers couldn’t remember the last time they saw that guy.
The Wizards are different, too. As Washington finished off the Chicago Bulls in five games, John Wall and Bradley Beal took big steps forward. The Wizards showed they have something special working when Nene and Marcin Gortat are on the court together. It should be an interesting series.
“John’s one of my good friends,” George said. “I’m proud of the steps he’s [taken], where he has his team now. He’s ready to take on [taking the next step the] way he played a tough Chicago team.”
On Saturday, Indiana trailed 32-31 early in the second. The Pacers closed the quarter on a 16-4 run to take a 47-36 halftime lead. Ian Mahinmi’s don’t-come-in-here block on Jeff Teague’s dunk attempt at the buzzer punctuated the half and sent the crowd into a frenzy. From that point, the Pacers weren’t losing this game.
On Game 7 Saturday in the NBA — three of the five series that went the distance concluded — the Hawks faced a major challenge. Entering this postseason, 114 series had been decided in Game 7s. The team playing on its home floor was 91-23 — a winning percentage of almost 80 percent.
The Hawks went quietly into the offseason while wondering about what could have been. By winning two of the first three games in Indianapolis, the Hawks were positioned to end the Pacers’ season and accomplish a rare feat Thursday on their floor.
The Hawks were seeking to become only the sixth No. 8 seed — though the third in the past four seasons — to win an opening-round series. Many in the crowd at Philips Arena, which included hip-hop superstars Ludacris and Jermaine Dupri, figured the Hawks were in good shape to get it done.
Atlanta took a five-point lead with a little more than three minutes remaining in the game. But the Pacers woke up on the road and handled their business at home. Now the Hawks are on vacation. The Pacers still have work to do.